Memoirs of a Geisha

Geishas are not prostitutes! Don’t call them that, or they’ll get mad.

That is what I learned about the mysterious geisha lifestyle in the film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” a lengthy, soggy adaptation of a novel by Arthur Golden, a man who not only was never a geisha, but isn’t even Japanese! (Then again, neither is most of the cast.)

It is directed by Rob Marshall, a Broadway choreographer/director who earned an Oscar nomination for his dazzling adaptation of “Chicago.” How he has followed up that sure-handed work with such a dull, somber affair as this, I don’t know.

Set in the 1930s and ’40s in Japan, the film tells the story of a girl named Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) who is sold to a geisha house upon the death of her mother. The young girls are given basic geisha training in their early years — traditional dancing, singing, tea-serving, that sort of thing — and eventually hope to become apprentices to the real geishas, and then onto full geishahood themselves.

Chiyo, 9 years old and possessed of piercing blue eyes (an oddity that is not explained), runs afoul of Hatsumomo (Li Gong), who flouts the geisha rules and disobeys the house “Mother” (Kaori Momoi) but is kept around because she brings in good money. (But NOT for being a hooker! They don’t have sex with their clients! Unless they do. Which they sometimes do. But it’s not required!) She tries to make Chiyo one of her minions, but Chiyo is too strong-willed to be bullied by the likes of Hatsumomo.

Some years later, Chiyo is renamed Sayuri and starts being played by Ziyi Zhang (who’s as Japanese as I am). She’s taken under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Hatsumomo’s chief rival, and there is a good deal of cat-fighting and backbiting between the two geishas. Sayuri has always gotten along with Hatsumomo’s apprentice, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh), but now they are pawns in the rivalry between their mentors.

Through it all, Sayuri has a crush on a man called the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a businessman whose partner, Nobu (Koji Yakusho), takes a particular liking to Sayuri. Sayuri is thus caught between her duty to Nobu (her client) and her feelings for the Chairman. Geishas are instructed not to fall in love, ever. But what’s a girl to do?

The 1997 novel, which has been adapted by Robin Swicord (“Practical Magic”), underwent an arduous journey to the screen. At one point Steven Spielberg was set to direct it. Not to dwell on what might have been, but surely Spielberg would have introduced more heart and more intimacy into it than Marshall has done. Marshall has made a very sterile film, one where we spend a great deal of time with the characters without ever getting to know them — or, really, what the life of a geisha is all about.

The three leads — Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang and Li Gong — perform nobly, almost breathing life into the turgid screenplay. Certainly they are dressed beautifully, and the movie is often lovely to look at, if nothing else.

An older version of Sayuri opens the film by narrating, “A story like mine should never be told.” I think maybe she was right. If her story is going to be told, it should be told more passionately than this.

C- (2 hrs., 25 min.; PG-13, brief sexuality, discussion of some mature themes.)