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Tokyo premiere of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' nets mixed reaction, criticism

The film adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha met with a mixed reaction at its world premiere in Tokyo Tuesday, amid concerns about its portrayal of Japanese culture.

The film adaptation of Arthur Golden's best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha met with a mixed reaction at its world premiere in Tokyo Tuesday, amid concerns about its portrayal of Japanese culture.

Despite much anticipation for the film – set for a staggered North American release beginning Dec. 9 – the project has drawn criticism from different camps in the two Asian countries.

In Japan, critics have questioned whether a Hollywood movie can accurately depict the nuanced culture of geishas – the women trained from childhood in music, dance and conversation so as to be elegant companions to wealthy men. In the past, other cultures have portrayed geishas as simply glorified prostitutes. Before filming, the film's actresses submitted to a sort of "geisha bootcamp" for six weeks to quickly pick-up skills that took real geishas a lifetime to acquire.

Others have disparaged the filmmakers for shooting most of the movie on California soundstages and criticized the casting of non-Japanese actors for Geisha's three female leads: China's Zhang Ziyi stars in the title role, while compatriot Gong Li and Chinese-Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh star as her rival and mentor, respectively.

Japan's Ken Watanabe stars in the lead male role as Zhang's love interest, while other Japanese actors portray secondary characters.

In China, on the other hand, the lead actresses have drawn disapproval from those who still resent Japan's occupation of Chinese regions before and during the Second World War.

Director Rob Marshall, whose last film project was the Oscar-winning musical Chicago, has often defended the cast during recent media events in advance of the premiere.

"I have a very simple philosophy about casting, and that is: cast the best person for the role," Marshall told reporters Tuesday. "The demands were enormous and Ziyi was the best."

At a press conference Monday, Zhang herself stressed that the film's largely-Asian cast is a major milestone for a Hollywood film and an amazing opportunity to showcase the dramatic skills of Asian actors to a worldwide audience.

The lavish, joint U.S.-Japan production, which was at one point to be directed by Steven Spielberg, tells the story of a poor fisherman's daughter sold into life as a geisha. She rises to become one of the most celebrated geishas in 1920s Kyoto.

"Today's young people have very little connection with the world of geisha," a Japanese journalist told Reuters after seeing a preview Monday. "Perhaps they will be able to see it in the same way as foreigners do, as something exotic."

Arthur Golden's 1997 novel spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list and sold millions of copies, despite a lawsuit by the woman who inspired the book. In the book, the U.S. author mentions the assistance of former geisha Mineko Iwasaki, who later received death threats and criticism for breaking the code of silence about her community. Iwasaki sued Golden for breaking their alleged agreement to maintain her anonymity but they later reached a settlement out of court.

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