This wry comic musical (yes, a Japanese musical) from Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t director Masayuki Suo is an acknowledged homage to My Fair Lady.
At its core is the question of whether there is such a thing as an “authentic” geisha. Is their knowledge as culturally enriched hostesses versed in storytelling, dance, poetry and subservience a natural phenomenon or a learned craft?
The film is set in one of Kyoto’s traditional districts, with Suo making use of the city’s historic sites, festivals and performance spaces.
Bemoaning the lack of geisha with the necessary poise and assumed respect for the linguistic skills needed to fulfill the role are a teahouse “mother”, Chiharu (Sumiko Fuji), and teahouse owner, grumpy old Kitano (Ittoku Kishibe). They meet with their erudite customer, a linguistics professor named “Roach” (played by Hiroki Hasegawa from Why Don’t You Play in Hell? reviewed in InDaily last month).
Homely 16-year-old Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) stumbles into the teahouse with the wish of being transformed into a maiko (trainee geisha). Raised by her grandparents, Haruko is burdened with not one, but two regional accents that are incomprehensible to the cultural snobs of Kyoto and Tokyo. She has learnt about the craft through the secret blog of current maiko Momoharu (Tomoko Tabata). Momoharu is castigated by the elder Chiharu, who has no idea what a “flog” is used for, but is certain it is not a suitable activity for a wannabe geisha.
Taking on the Henry Higgins role, Roach makes a piddling bet with Kitano that he can bring Haruko up to maiko standard in six months. Roach draws upon old and new technologies to assist in the expansion of her vocabulary and the smoothing of her pronunciation.
Appearing almost 10 minutes in, the film’s title song is as delightfully cheesy as you can get. Other songs pop up in the most unlikely of places.
In the title role, doe-eyed Kamishiraishi is brilliantly engaging. A cute entry for this year’s Japanese Film Festival.
Lady Maiko will have its Australian premiere screening tomorrow (Friday) night at the opening night gala for the Japanese Film Festival at the Mercury Cinema.