Home > Reviews > MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA – John Williams


December 9, 2005 Leave a comment Go to comments

memoirsofageishaOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of 2005’s most prestigious film projects, Memoirs of a Geisha is a lavish cinematic version of Arthur Golden’s popular novel of the same name. Originally slated to be directed by Steven Spielberg, the film was eventually taken over by Chicago director Rob Marshall, but not before Spielberg had secured the services of his long-time collaborator John Williams to write the film’s score. As regular readers of this site will know, scores which combine oriental sensibilities with western orchestras often receive high ratings and glowing plaudits. Unsurprisingly, Memoirs of a Geisha is not going to buck that trend.

Set in the timeframe surrounding the Japanese involvement in World War II, the film follows the fortunes of Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo as a child, Ziyi Zhang as an adult), who at the age of nine is taken from the small fishing village of Yoroido and sold to the proprietress of a Kyoto geisha house. Taking the geisha name Sayuri, the girl sets her sights on learning the traditions and ways of the geisha – becoming a “moving work of art” who sells her skills, not her body – and winning the affections and patronage of the elusive but kind Chairman (Ken Watanabe). However, Sayuri quickly makes an enemy in the shape of Hatsumomo (Gong Li), an older geisha and the house’s most consistent earner, who resents the new girl and her unspoiled beauty, and refuses to allow her entry to the geisha school. With the help of another geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), Sayuri secretly learns the ancient arts and is introduced into society – but not before the onset of war threatens to shatter both her world, and the ancient traditions of the Japan of old.

Once again, John Williams’ reputation as the most well-respected and admired film composer working today has allowed him to draw on the talents of the musical superstars of the classical world – French/Chinese cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who worked with Williams on Seven Years in Tibet and Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman, who worked with Williams on Schindler’s List. To complement his soloist, the score is performed by a full symphony orchestra, and given an oriental flavour through the work of soloists Masakazu Yoshizawa (on the bamboo flute), Karen Han (on the erhu Chinese violin) and Masayo Ishigure and Hiromi Hashibe (on the koto, a Japanese 13-stringed zither).

Unusually for a Williams score, Memoirs of a Geisha does not really have a “big theme” which cinema goers will whistle as they leave the theatre or which could be easily included on a pops album. Instead, “Sayuri’s Theme” is more of an intricate recurring motif, performed in its entirety by Ma on solo cello in the opening cue, but which features deep within the fabric of most of the subsequent cues, anchoring the score with a thematic element but never becoming monotonous or overpowering. Cues such as “The Journey to the Hanamachi”, the lush “Becoming a Geisha”, “The Garden Meeting” and the slightly twisted-sounding “A New Name… A New Life” allow the orchestra to surround and envelop the theme, developing it into a rich, textured soundscape which is just more than a simple recapitulation, highlighting Ma’s impressive mastery of his instrument. When Perlman takes over the lead performance of the film’s secondary theme during “The Chairman’s Waltz” it adds another level of emotional intensity to the score, and when the two combine during “Sayuri’s Theme and End Credits”, the effect s magical.

However, arguably the best track on the album is “Confluence” – beginning softly with gentle flute and oboe performances of the main theme, Williams passes the melody around different sections of the orchestra until Ma picks up the lead and allows the theme to develop into a rapturous, heartbreaking climax. There aren’t many composers who can deliver this kind of emotionally powerful punch with their music, and simply strengthens Williams’s standing as number one composer of his generation.

A number of cues embrace traditional Japanese form and melody, some of which sound unnaturally cacophonous to western ears, but nevertheless provide an authentic sense of time and place to the album overall. Both “The Journey to the Hanamachi” and “Finding Satsu” have a sense of danger and mystery through their breathy, threateningly ominous shakuhachi blasts, while “Going to School” is bolstered by all manner of rattles and rhythms, overlaid by a gently playful melody and accentuated by the evocative koto. “Dr. Crab’s Prize” also features the shakuhachi, performing without accompaniment for the majority of the cue, creating a sense of loneliness and an air of mystique. “Brush on Silk” is perhaps he most traditional of all the cues, embracing a style of writing which is much more eastern than western, although “The Fire Scene and the Coming of War” does contain an extract of the tragedy-laden traditional Japanese vocal lament “Ogi No Mato (The Folding Fan as a Target)”.

Occasionally, but not unsurprisingly, there are several echoes of Williams’ 1997 score Seven Years in Tibet, not simply because of Ma’s performance but through some of the textures and chords Williams chooses to employ. Cues such as “Chiyo’s Prayer”, “Finding Satsu” and “The Fire Scene and the Coming of War” are notable in this regard, especially in terms of the bubbly, undulating orchestral undercurrent buried beneath the lead instrumentals. However, whereas Seven Years in Tibet tended to be a rather slow score when the majestic main theme was not present, Memoirs of a Geisha has much more to offer than just a rousing melody, and is a much more satisfying listening experience overall.

2005 really has been a standout year for John Williams, with Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, this score, and Munich to come. Considering that the composer will be 74 on his next birthday, the range and quality of his output continues to amaze and impress, especially when you take into consideration the fact that his orchestrators Conrad Pope and Eddie Karam do little more than neatly transcribe his detailed sketches. Of the four, Memoirs of a Geisha may be the best of the bunch – although not as purely enjoyable as Sith was, and not as angry or confrontational as War of the Worlds, the atmosphere of delicacy, elegance and intimacy, coupled with the appropriate ethnicity of the orchestrations, and the beauty of the main theme, make this score a winner all the way.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Sayuri’s Theme (1:31)
  • The Journey to the Hanamachi (4:06)
  • Going to School (2:42)
  • Brush on Silk (2:31)
  • Chiyo’s Prayer (3:36)
  • Becoming a Geisha (4:52)
  • Finding Satu (3:44)
  • The Chairman’s Waltz (2:39)
  • The Rooftops of the Hanamachi (3:49)
  • The Garden Meeting (2:44)
  • Dr. Crab’s Prize (2:18)
  • Destiny’s Path (3:20)
  • A New Name… A New Life (3:33)
  • The Fire Scene and the Coming of War (6:48)
  • As the Water… (2:01)
  • Confluence (3:42)
  • A Dream Discarded (2:00)
  • Sayuri’s Theme and End Credits (5:06)

Running Time: 61 minutes 11 seconds

Sony Classical 8876747082 (2005)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Featured musical soloists Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Masakazu Yoshizawa, Masayo Ishigure and Hiromi Hashibe. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ken Wannberg, Ken Karman and Ramirio Belgardt. Mastered by Pat Sullivan. Album produced by John Williams.

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