Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, we have been intrigued by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of fictional creations from Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha". The reality of the geisha's existence has rarely been described. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but literally "arts people". ...
Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, we have been intrigued by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of fictional creations from Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha". The reality of the geisha's existence has rarely been described. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but literally "arts people". Their accomplishments might include singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument but, above all, they are masters of the art of conversation, soothing worries of highly paid businessmen who can afford their attentions. The real secret history of the geisha is explored here.
It is rather difficult to retell the actual ?plot? of this book, mostly due to the fact that it cannot be looked upon as a piece of fiction, but at the same time it is so much more than just a historical description of the life of a geisha. I would say that it undoubtedly is a thoroughly researched work and it contains a masterful blend of an autobiographical novel, history and social analysis as well as quite a bit of sheer entertainment. To be honest, I find it hard to comprehend how a person, who has not been exposed to the ways of the Japanese society for all her life, could have been able to write a book of such profound and moving insight concerning the history of geisha in general, and the everyday life of the few who still practice the profession today in particular. The book is composed in a quite unique way, because it is divided into different parts and every part is written in a special style. The introduction, for example, can be compared to an extract from an ordinary diary of sorts, whereas some of the longer chapters about the origin of the entertainers and artists of The Flower and Willow World are of a more serious and informative kind. However, this does not, by any means, make the book less interesting or understandable. In my own opinion, it is a brilliant perceptive study of the vicissitudes of a vanishing world.
The first 200 pages focus almost entirely on the ancient history of different kinds of courtesans in Japan, and how the author herself has to follow a long and narrow path to get the opportunity to spend time with some geisha. Soon, she realizes that an excessive amount of patience, discretion and tactfulness is required of her, because geisha do not show themselves to just anybody who is not a customer, and there are even less people among these selected few who have the privilege to be allowed to talk tête-à-tête with any of them while they are not wearing a thick layer of white make-up. Thus, Downer has to go through all kinds of difficulties to reach her goal. She even tries to please the Mama-san, the owner of the teahouse, by buying countless very expensive cakes from a special and well hidden bakery called Kanshindo. In the end, her efforts pay off and she is finally permitted to get some glimpses of the world inside a modern teahouse. She observes the simple interior design and furnishing, interviews both young as well as retired geisha and she is even invited to take part in some ceremonies. All this is described in a quite vivid way and personally, I am very fond of the detailed language Downer uses in this book. It makes the whole reading experience a lot more enjoyable and worthwhile, and when I read it, it felt like it helped me to gain a deep understanding and respect for the geisha.
Before I read this book, I thought about geisha as some kind of Japanese scarlet women, in other words; mere prostitutes who dressed in ostentatious kimonos, covered their faces in white paint and had gigantic wigs. Therefore, I am glad that I came across this marvellous book by accident one day when I was wandering around in the library, surveying the bookshelves. It turned my prejudice into fascination and it has taught me, in an extraordinarily diverting way, a lot about the history of geisha, but also some very random and funny facts regarding this distinguished profession. Did you know, for example, that there are male geisha in Japan? I did not, and I am sure I am not the only one who has never heard a word about their existence.
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