It's not that the story is bad or unimportant, it's that everything else about the film screams "Look at me! Look at me!" The sets and costuming, the soundtrack, and the casting of a mixed-race Polish/Japanese version of Courtney Love in the lead role all go against type. And one cannot help but notice that this is not Memoirs of a Geisha. Insight from the nearly sixty second montage of naked female breasts near the beginning of the film might be missed if one doesn't notice that the director Mika Ninagawa, the art director Namiko Iwashiro, the music director Ringo Shiina, the producer Chikako Nakabayashi, the scriptwriter Yuki Tanada, and the artist of the original manga Moyoco Anno are all women.
The film is beautiful to look at, if a little over-indulgent at times. No attempt is made to be true to the period. I don't speak Japanese, and subtitles are always deficient in nuance, but I'm sure the dialog is straight off the streets of contemporary Tokyo and not in any Edo period parlance. I'm not generally a fan of costume dramas or period pieces so on the one hand I was interested in seeing this modernized production, but on the other hand I felt a sense of incongruity while watching it. The bold colors of the sets and costumes didn't bother me but the soundtrack is a little odd. Not so much in the style—which swims through many modern genres of pop, rock, and jazz—as in the reverb. The music often doesn't sound like it is in the same size room as the action that is taking place. I like Ringo Shiina's music, have a few of her solo CDs and those of Tokyo Jihen, the band she also plays in. It's not that I think the music is bad, or that it is too terribly out of place. I think the sound design could have been better, and I think that some of the folks who find the soundtrack a little jarring would be less put off by it if more attention had been paid to the overall sound design.
Finally, I was not won over by Anna Tsuchiya in the lead role. I'm sure casting her was a well-thought out conscious decision by the director and I also, in theory, think she fits the package the director was trying to deliver. It's not that she doesn't look 'traditionally' Japanese, whatever that is. And it's not that she lacks a certain elegance I've come to expect of these types of characters, although I'm not surprised by the omission of her doing any of the arty things these pre-geisha geisha types were supposed to be fluent in like music, poetry, dancing, or witty conversation. It might be that she just isn't a very good actress. These rock star cum actress types often possess great charisma that passes itself off as good acting in the right context. I'm not sure this is one of them. I hope I haven't spoiled it for potential viewers by bringing up Courtney Love, but that's what it felt like to me, a little vulgar and somewhere between disappointing and distracting. Tsuchiya is a lot more attractive in her own musical environment than she is in this film. I just didn't buy her as a sophisticated beauty who rises to the top. Maybe I'm just upset that Yoshino Kimura is given short-shrift in the fake eyelash department or that the truly beautiful and engaging Miho Kanno is dispatched with too early in the film.
Starring: Anna Tsuchiya, Yoshino Kimura, Miho Kanno, Kippei Shiina, Hiroki Narimiya, Masanobu Ando, Renji Ishibashi