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Confessions of a Geisha

Madonna presents her next alter ego – Hatsumomo. The world’s most famous pop geisha redefines maternity and the purpose of a woman and a man.

Sometimes I think that what I do is like being a modern-day geisha.
- Madonna

Geishas. One of the most intriguing phenomena in the Far East, enjoying a great deal of respect in Asia and often being confused with prostitutes by Western tourists. Their community has shrunk 10 times since the interwar period, and today is mostly centred around Gion, a district of Kyoto. They have inspired both Arthur Golden, whose book Memoirs of a Geisha revolves around Gion, and Madonna, who once decided to transform herself into one of them. We spoke to some geishas from Gion to find out what they think about Madonna’s Orient-inspired image.

The first time the world saw the “Asian version” of Madonna was in the mid-90s when she took part in the commercial for Takara in Japan. Clearly inspired by Asian fairy tales, she would point out in interviews how fascinated she was by the Japanese culture, and performed “Take a Bow” in an oriental outfit at the American Music Awards.


In 1997, after the success of Golden’s bestselling book, most fashionistas put Vogue aside and ran to bookstores, swapping Blahnik’s shoes for sandals. Fashion world welcomed a new trend – geisha glam! Paris and New York realised the potential in the centuries-long culture of the Orient and some designers introduced kimonos and traditional geisha shoes into their collections. Jean Paul Gaultier’s spring collection was clearly inspired by the motives of the Far East, John Galliano presented the autumn/winter collection Christian Dior's Geisha, in Nine & Co. wooden shoes were the hit of summer, and most brands, including Chanel, hired Asian models for their campaigns.

Harper's Bazaar by Patrick Demarchelier

Madonna couldn’t ignore such a prominent trend and in early 1999 emerged in a truly Japanese stylisation. She started to wear red and black kimonos, powdered her face white, and presented emotionless, noble face. She even went beyond what fashion victims were capable of. In Demarchelier’s photoshoot for the February issue of Harper's Bazaar, she seemed to have adopted not only the outfit, but also the personality of a geisha. She had become mysterious, and for her Western fans – even mystical. Being a geisha means being an object of men’s fantasies which mostly remain unfulfilled. In her book Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Lesley Downer aptly describes them as the purveyors of dreams. As the curators of this vanishing tradition, they’re characterized by wisdom, familiarity and sophistication, and their conversation skills are elevated to a level of high art. Not without a reason – the word geisha comes from the words ‘gei’ (art) and ‘sha’ (person). Hence, geishas represent the artistic world, but are works of art themselves as well. In Kyoto, geishas are also called ‘geiko’ (after ‘gei’ for ‘art’ and ‘ko’ for ‘woman’).

Harper's Bazaar by Patrick Demarchelier

Madonna’s fascination by Geishas didn’t kick in until about 2 years after their style conquered the fashion world. The sudden surge of interest was most likely prompted by the forthcoming film adaptation of Memoirs. In an interview for Larry King in January 1999, Madonna admitted that her muse had in recent months been Hatsumomo, the character from Golden’s novel. Playing her role in the film clearly was what she desired and several other statements hinted that the Japanese character had become Madonna’s obsession. She zealously started studying Japanese literature, became a big fan of geisha films by Kenji Mizoguchi, dyed her hair black and began lobbying on a huge scale. The “Take a Bow” video and the 10-page letter to Alan Parker, the director of Evita, was nothing compared to what Madonna was willing to do to win the part this time around. According to Liz Rosenberg, some people even started to call her Hatsumomo: There are people in her entourage who might say “Oh, you're being very Hatsumomo today”. There will always be a place for Hatsumomo in her heart. Her chair on the set of her current film, The Next Best Thing, has Hatsumomo’s name printed on it, and she is listed as “Hatsu” on the call sheet. Those efforts couldn’t pass unnoticed by the media – Los Angeles Times even published a short article You Must Cast Me. Unfortunately, Columbia Pictures press officer would dash all hopes in a brief statement: The answer is ‘No’. Madonna is not being considered for a role. Eventually, the film directed by Robert Marshall was released 6 years later to box office success, and the part of Hatsumomo was played by the Chinese actress Li Gong.

Madonna performing “Nothing Really Matters” at the Grammys

The famous red kimono was designed for Madonna by Jean Paul Gaultier, and Arianne Phillips was in charge of stylization. The end result, however, was a very Westernised take on a geisha, and in “Nothing Really Matters”, it actually looked very futuristic. Experts were able to easily point out all the faults, most notably the hairstyle, which had little to do with proper geisha look. If anything, it was close to kamuro, young girls taught to be tayū, prostitutes of the highest class of all oiran. Make up is also very Western and not much in geishas’ tradition.

Still from the “Nothing Really Matters” video

The meaning of the “Nothing Really Matters” video is very enigmatic. The visual code represented in the clip contradicts geishas’ traditions and Madonna, although fairly resembling one of them, certainly doesn’t act like one. She runs down a narrow corridor, thrusting like a wild animal, cries with sadness before switching to a hysterical laughter, once again adapting a traditional work into a popcultural product. The narrow corridor serves as a symbol of limitation that are imposed on her, limiting her but at the same time leaving her enough freedom for artistic expression.

As a postmodern icon, Madonna explores geishas’ traditions to express herself, not to create a copy.

The scenes where Madonna is holding a bag of water are particularly intriguing. Some interpret the bag as a child, and in the context of the song’s lyrics (Now that I am grown / Everything's changed / I'll never be the same / Because of you) it perhaps symbolizes Lourdes. Madonna uses the geisha motive to illustrate relations between a man and a woman, but instead of presenting the sexual aspect she focuses on the fruit of the relationship – the child as well as motherhood, just like in the whole Light Era.

Nothing Really Matters

The subject continued into the Drowned World Tour. Madonna devoted the whole segment to the Orient, opening it with “Frozen” and wearing unnaturally long sleeves which would surely terrify contemporary geishas. This was preceded by the video “Paradise (Not for Me)”, projected to the audience on the screen. According to its director, Dago Gonzales, the initial plan included using the same kimono from “Nothing Really Matters” video. Arianne, however, got hold of traditional Japanese furisode kimonos at the last minute (they’re the most formal kimonos meant to be worn at weddings and other important events). The one Madonna liked the most was used in the clip. A respected geiko, though, would never put on such kimono. Patterned costumes are reserved for maiko – girls who only aspire to be geishas. The outfit still almost makes sense: red sleeves and red, patterned collar correctly indicate that Madonna impersonates maiko, but the weakest link are the red shoes which are typical for geiko. Maiko traditionally wear okobo shoes. Her make-up and hairstyle weren’t quite accurate either. Those minor mistakes, though, practically impossible to spot by someone not familiar with the Japanese culture, didn’t impact the clip in any negative way. The impressive video illustrates suicide and follows Madonna on her journey to ‘the other side’. The light coming out of her mouth symbolizes soul leaving her body. The director wasn’t too keen on such imagery and eventually created an alternative version in which the light is replaced by black ink.

Paradise (Not For Me)

Another brilliant scene takes place during “Nobody's Perfect” – the act of cutting a lock of Madonna’s hair under the hood has two meanings. For some, it symbolizes the introduction to mizuage. In Memoirs of a Geisha, mizuage is reduced to sexual initiation of a young maiko and selling her virginity. On the other hand, Mineko Iwasaki, arguably the most famous geisha in history, explains that mizuage is actually beyond that: it is the moment of transition from a young maiko into geiko. The process is accompanied by cutting the hair – as geisha, she will only wear wigs. Nowadays, the symbolic cutting of a pony tail takes place in the third year of education, when a young maiko upgrades and changes her hairstyle from wareshinobu to ofuku.

The second interpretation of the scene relates to the male-female relations, mentioned earlier. Placed in the context of the very dark show, cutting the hair can also be interpreted as losing femininity. Before this actually happens, we observe the emotional battle between the geisha and her mentor. If “Nobody's Perfect” pictures Madonna as a victim, then tables turn in “Sky Fits Heaven” and the samurai is defeated by the despiteful warrior. From the wedding kimono in “Paradise” to bruises and blood in “Mer Girl”, Madonna uses the symbol of geisha to define genders and juggle their roles in modern world.

“Nobody's Perfect”, Drowned World Tour

Redefining culture is very typical of postmodern Madonna. But what would modern geishas say about the popcultural interpretation of their heritage? We have approached one of their houses (okiya) in Gion with this question. The supervisor, with typical diplomacy, asked not to press her into giving an opinion – she explained that such judgements could negatively impact their okiya. According to unofficial reports, though, geishas were actually amazed by Madonna’s image, despite her westernized take on the subject.

Translated by Mat Zaremba

Many thanks to David Von Volak for assistance!

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