Geisha; Japan; Beauty
In Siem Reap there’s a magical little restaurant where the ferns part and the lanterns sway in the tropical breezes. At night, the lights go on and the place twinkles charm. It’s called Madame Butterfly.
I’m not sure when it happened, but through the years the story of Madame Butterfly has become embellished and turned into a Mikado-esque fanfare. If you google “Madame Butterfly”, “Madame Butterfly Geisha” pops up. These two subjects have merged, and in many people’s minds are the same.
Both subjects offer plenty of mystique, glamor and pique our interest in the exotic. I believe it’s a result of this misunderstanding that the two are so often confused. I know. Opera is dramatic. It’s supposed to be. I get that. Puccini’s is one of the most beautiful ever written. Despite the superiority of the score, the opera is still a sentimental favorite, due to the potent mix of tragic love and gorgeous sets; parasols swaying, silk rippling and falling blossoms, all the trappings we’ve come to expect. Those who have attended a performance, or read the backstory know Cho-Cho-san and her horrible ending.
We feel her love for Pinkerton and we go with her on her naïve journey, as she waits, ever faithful, scanning the horizon line for him to return. Touching and poignant. If you’ve done you’re homework, or poked around my blog you’d know the story is largely made up, a myth the Nagasaki Tourist Board shamelessly exploits. It’s based on scant historical evidence. An old photograph and a kimono. The book, Madame Butterfly was published in 1903 by an American lawyer who was influenced by Loti’s famous Madame Chrysanthemum. Are you following me? Because here come’s the geisha connection.
It seems Loti’s story too chronicles a naval officer married to a Nagasaki geisha. Bingo. The novel was so influential in it’s day that it shaped western views of Japan. Or, more precisely of kimonoed Japanese women sitting around all day, emoting for officer lovers. But it did little to promote the truth about the real geisha as artist who studied her craft from an early age. In other words, a story that had no real basis in truth-the Glover House-the photograph of one of his many women wearing butterflies-and a novel became the image we see today; Madame Butterfly the Geisha.
Of course, this is largely due to ignorance and perpetuation of early 20th Century stereotypes of Asian woman as exotic sexual object. To be fair, some includes admiration for La Japonaise style, a craze for everything Japanese, albeit through western filtering at the time.
The geisha and the woman purported to be Madame Butterfly, if she existed at all, are not remotely connected. Period. But through the magic of cinema, novelists and dreamers they will likely be intermingled for a long time to come. And, I guess that’s not such a bad thing as long as people have the opportunity to learn the history and appreciate the craft of the geisha without being confused or sidelined by stereotypes and misinformation. One of the problems is that the geisha community itself, shrinking every decade is closed and guards it’s secrets well. I wonder how they feel about Madame Butterfly, and whether they are annoyed by the morphing of a fictional character into their realm?
It’s still a darn good story that refuses to go away and that’s okay by me.
A beautiful orphaned girl grows up in a brothel from kamaru to top courtesan amongst female intrigue, jealousy and costumes that demand attention. What’s not to love?
If you haven’t seen the 2009 film bringing the Japanese manga artist Anno’s beloved world of the Yoshiwara to life what are you waiting for?
Kick off your geta, untie your sash this is one spectacular feast for the eye.
Anna Tsuchiya (Kamikaze Girls) plays Kiyoha, a girl traded to a brothel who undergoes a transformation to reach the top courtesan. But she doesn’t want to be oiran. She’s rebellious. She has a dream to see if cherry blossoms are the same as ones outside of the brothel gates. It might sound simple, but courtesans were rarely allowed to cross the great Omon gate for more than a handful of festival days. But while Kiyoha dreams of a life beyond the brothel, grasping elders see her spirited nature as a sign. This girl will rise as a great oiran. The older, house oiran already fears her as her greatest rival in the making. As she grows the tensions escalate to delicious fun.
Rivals aside, and who doesn’t love that, the film explores the courtesan’s peculiar state of being. She’s schooled in the ways to please men but for the love of God, thou shalt not fall in love. To take a lover was the end of a courtesan’s career, a hidden trap that could expose her to pregnancy, blackmail and disease. If a man takes a courtesan to bed he must pay for the privilege. To fall in love was a weakness. To give away favors for free was a disgrace. Dismissal was the price to be paid for disobedience and the contract, thousands of ryo, was due and payable to the brothel upon expulsion. Woe to the courtesan who didn’t steal her heart and was wise in the ways of love; who didn’t wait till the time was right for love after her contract was bought out. This is Kiyoha’s down fall and why we love her so much.
Will Kihoya get to see the cherry blossoms on the outside of the brothel gates and what will she find? You’ll have to watch but trust me this film just has it all. Stunning costumes; allusion and symbolism; terrific cast; amazing cinematography and a fabulous soundtrack. They also nail the figure-eight step.
If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing check out the song below Gamble by Sheena Ringo for a montage of the film.
I read an article today on NBC news that said women obsess about their looks 6 x more than men. Ha! No shock there, we have been trying to make ourselves lovely since Cleopatra donned famous khol-lined eyes to reel in Julius Caesar. Adornments are an important part of culture and a rite of passage that signals to the opposite sex one has passed from childhood.
Ohaguro “Iron Drink”
Crazes come and go. Today, everyone wants bleached out, movie-star sparkly teeth. Therefore, it might seem shocking at first glance, but the history of tooth blackening in Japanese culture is an old and storied one. The practice died out in the Meiji era, 1868-1912, but you can still see Maiko’s and Tayu of today adhering to the practice. Ladies at the imperial court in Kyoto and even ordinary women engaged in blackening their teeth. The allure was related to admiration of black, shining lacquer. Married women were required to blacken their teeth through a mixture of iron and vinegar, mixed with tea powders that would stick to the teeth for days. It was a mark of maturity amongst women, when motherhood and wifely duties were taken up.
So, why would courtesans want to engage in this ritual, I mean they were supposed to be different right? Stand out, be special, hold an air of mystery. Well, according to John Stevenson, courtesan’s of the Yoshiwara used the practice as part of a new courtesan’s coming out ritual, to define her as shinzo-teenage courtesan in training. It may have also protected the teeth, ironically from decay as the heavy kohl seems to have had antibacterial properties for the Egyptians. Black teeth were considered beautiful, so it makes sense that the courtesan would want to add this to her arsenal.
What do you think? Do you think its beautiful? When I was researching Japanese beauty rituals for the sequal to my book, The Secret Life of Concubines, I debated very heavily to add this to the main character’s beauty ritual as she works her way up as top courtesan in the Yoshiwara, unsure how the practice would be received by Western audiences.
An old secret-Nightingale Dung
Like I was saying, kicks come and go and no one really knows what beauty treatments work to stave off age. You can go to a few select spas around the world, not just in Asia, but here in the US and get a Nightingale poo facial massage. Before you scoff at the notion, there maybe gold in them there hills. The mark of true beauty in the Edo period, and before that was white skin. To achieve this, women used a lead-based powder on their face. But there were courtesans so stunning with truly dewy complexions that made men weep. They needed no powders and no cover-ups. To ensure they stayed that way, a lengthy massage was employeed by the brothels to keep their top stars in shape and ensure a graceful aging process. It’s also a known fact that courtesan’s lied about their age, and they could because they looked so good. The nightingale droppings were harvested and added to white clay and water to make a treatment that was hailed for lightening the skin and smoothing out the texture.
The dung contains the amino acid guanine and is rich in urea which encourages the skin to retain moisture. These ingredients give users a boost to the complexion, and a lighter, softer glow. Even Oprah has endorsed the product. Still not convinced? If you wear cosmetics, chances are your already wearing guanine, and its what gives fish scales their iridescent sheen.
I’m curious, and I’m a product junkie so I might try this.
I owe so much to the Geisha. She’s such a powerful symbol, isn’t she, for something largely dying out; she’s still iconic; still alluring; unbelievably dedicated; enigmatic and somehow very very shrewd, I imagine. She enthralls us and has become part of our own pop culture. When I saw Katy Perry channeling her inner geisha at the AMA I had to smile. I’m also a really, really big fan of KP. But getting back to the Geisha….
I was searching for a project I would have passion for, something to sustain me over the long haul of writing and editing. I discovered the hidden, erotic world of the Japanese courtesan. They existed long before the Geisha, and are even more revered in Japan than the Geisha. I was smitten. But in doing my research for Concubine, I could never have gotten there without my love of the Geisha. The rustle of silk like water down her back, inches of bare flesh at a gaping neckline and that shy smile tucked behind a tilted sensu fan.
Going back fifteen or so years, too many to count, I became an ardent admirer and fascinated by this culture of Kyoto. This ancient, artistic and somewhat mysterious order of women who hand down the secrets of the tradition, and guard them well delighted me with a desire to know more. The glamor of these artistic creatures-for Geisha means just that-”artist” seemed to make my pulse beat a bit faster when I dreamed of beautiful silks rippling down backs, heard the tinkle-tinkle of teasing hair flutters and clip-clop of dainty little steps bustling on their way to tea houses.
I was hooked.
It also occurred to me that there are things I can borrow from this culture to make my life more magical, to feel more glamorous and to pamper myself just a little bit. In that way we best honor the Geisha. One day, I had to put this to the test. I decided to walk like a courtesan of Edo, doing four steps to the one to see if I could get my husband’s attention, it worked in the grocery store. I was doing an experiment for my book. I wanted to see how difficult this was to sustain on the foot and the body, in public, and to see how actively the conscious mind must engage oneself in order to adopt an extreme method of walking. I’m sure for the women of the Yoshiwara, it was like breathing, but it was not easy and my husband did notice. You don’t have to do that kind of experiment like I did to get something out of the Geisha or live like the courtesan. You can keep it soft and subtle, maybe only you know about it, maybe that’s part of the fun until someone else notices. Like my walk in the produce aisle. We all live these days life on a fast track and it can leave us feeling black and white, that we are living in a world devoid of color and mystery.
I have a collection of rich kimono and some of the best beauty products coming out of Japan that have made my skin feel amazing. Camellia oil of course is a must for making hands and feet feel like butter.
Men do look at our feet. In Asian cultures, the foot was intensely erotic, and courtesans in Japan walked barefoot-even in winter to show they were hearty and hale, and also to showcase their erotic appendages. Sometimes they painted a pale pink wash over their toes, like my character Miyako did when she rose as top courtesan at the House of Great Muirya. Next time you give yourself a pedicure rub your feet with Camellia oil and wrap them in a pair of cozy aloe socks. The next morning, they will be like meat falling off the bone and lets see who notices after a date.
Will you be bold enough to paint a pale pink wash?
About Me: JM Ledwell is the author of CONCUBINE, a duaology set in samurai Japan. Her second book, the sequel is A DUTCH COURTESAN TAKES EDO.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geisha If you’d like to read more.
“Your time will come, if you wait for it, if you wait for it. It’s hard, believe me, I’ve tried…”
– Imagine Dragons