Note: This movie is fiction and should not be used as a source for knowledge about geisha. This movie and the book based on it, is fiction as well as inaccurate. Please keep this in mind.
Memoirs of a Geisha is based off of the novel of the same name. It was produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Spyglass Entertainment, and also by Douglas Wick's Red Wagon Productions. It was directed by Rob Marshall and released in the United States on December 9th, 2005 by Columbia Pictures and DreamWorks.
It stars Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Youki Kudoh, and Suzuka Ohgo. Suzuka Ohgo plays the younger Sayuri/Chiyo in the movie. The movie was filmed in southern and northern California and in several locations in Kyoto, including the Kiyomizu temple and the Fushimi Inari shrine.
Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a young girl, Chiyo Sakamoto, who is sold into slavery by her family. Her new family then sends her off to school to become a geisha. This movie is mainly about older Chiyo and her struggle as a geisha to find love, in the process making a lot of enemies. The film was nominated and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, and eventually won three: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. The Japanese release of the film was titled Sayuri, the titular character's geisha name.
The film, set in Japan during the Showa Era, tells the story of Chiyo Sakamoto (portrayed by Suzuka Ohgo as a child and by Zhang Ziyi as an adult), a poor, young Japanese girl who has been sold along with her older sister Satsu into a life of servitude by her parents when she is nine years old. Chiyo is taken in by the proprietress of a geisha house, Mother (Kaori Momoi), but Satsu is rejected and is sold to another house in the "pleasure district" of the Hanamachi. At the okiya (geisha house) she meets another young girl named "Pumpkin" (Youki Kudoh). Both girls are sent off to geisha school but Chiyo dishonors the okiya by attempting to run away and then is forced to work to pay off the debt of her purchase and the soiling of a silk kimono owned by a well-known geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), which Chiyo was blackmailed into defacing by another geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who is famous, beautiful and cruel; she also lives in the okiya. Chiyo is beaten in the courtyard by Mother, but Auntie convinces her to let herself take over, telling Chiyo that she will "beat you hard, so Mother will not beat you harder." Mother is seen indoors listening to the radio, and turns the volume up louder so as to ignore Chiyo's screams.
One night, Chiyo takes Hatsumomo to her meeting with General Tottori. Once she's inside the teahouse, Chiyo runs away to find her sister, Satsu, in the pleasure district of Miyagawa-Cho and they arrange to meet by the bridge the day after as soon as it is dark and escape together. When she returns in secret, she sees Hatsumomo and a young man named Koichi (Karl Yune) having sex in the shed. Mother hears and Hatsumomo shoos Koichi away and makes it appear that Chiyo was stealing money, after asking her why she was back (Hatsumomo had assumed that she would be gone that day, but Satsu had persuaded Chiyo to wait until the night after). Facing a beating, Chiyo tells Mother that Hatusmomo was having sex with a man; Mother proves it by reaching under her kimono and slaps Hatsumomo, telling her, "What do you think? That a geisha is free to love? Never." Hatsumomo never sees Koichi again.
When Chiyo escapes again to run away with her sister, she is forced to use a different route. Since the okiya gate is locked after Hatsumomo's disgrace, Chiyo climbs over rooftops until she can see the bridge in the distance. Chiyo falls from a rooftop and ends up back in the okiya being seen to by a doctor. Mother discusses the debts she has accounted for and explains that Satsu ran away that night, without waiting for Chiyo. She never sees her again, and Mother tells her to forget that she ever had a sister, explaining, 'We are your only family now.' Mother then places a package on her stomach, which contains a letter (read to her by Auntie; since Chiyo cannot read) reporting the death of her mother, and then, a few weeks after, her father. Chiyo feels she cannot sink lower, as her escapades have caused her to be taken out of geisha training and work as a slave to pay off her debts.
One day while crying in the street, the young Chiyo is noticed by the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and his geisha companions. Chiyo is afraid to make eye contact with the Chairman, who says "Don't be afraid to look at me." He then buys her an iced sorbet (kakigōri) and gives her his handkerchief with some money in it. Inspired by his act of kindness, Chiyo resolves to become a geisha so that she may one day become a part of the Chairman’s life. She spends the money, not on food, but on prayer, wishing to see him again. Chiyo, now a young woman, is taken under the wing of Mameha, who has forgiven her for her actions as a child. Under Mameha's tutelage, Chiyo becomes a maiko (geisha in training) and then takes the name of Sayuri. She becomes the most famous geisha in all of Gion, Kyoto. Hatsumomo becomes Sayuri's rival and seeks to destroy her in order to secure her role as head geisha. Through her work as a geisha, Sayuri reunites with the Chairman and longs to catch his attention. However, when Hatsumomo arrives at the sumo match with Korin, Mameha tells Sayuri to seduce the Chairman's friend and business partner, Nobu. She explains that Hatsumomo hates him and finds him repulsive. She'd never take Nobu away from her. Sayuri does by having him explain Sumo in a witty tone. Nobu falls fast for her, temporarily diverting Hatsumomo's attention away. She and Korin leave satisfied believing that he could be her demise. Sayuri grows in popularity and is introduced to Dr. Crab, a mizuage specialist. Mameha starts a bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage which will make her a full geisha. But when her plans get derailed, she has Sayuri talk to Pumpkin in secret. They soon learn Hatsumomo lied about her being deflowered to Dr. Crab by Nobu in her desperate attempt to drive Sayuri out of Gion. With Mameha's connections and Sayuri dancing skills, she gets named the lead dancer for the Spring Dances. Coming out of the bathhouse, Hatsumomo is angered further when she sees an advertisement of Sayuri as such and the men captivated by her. In a fit of rage and jealousy, she rips the posters and demands an explanation from Mother. Mother calmly takes the posters off the food and tells her to go talk to Mameha. Hatsumomo refuses due to their rivalry is only asking her. Pumpkin is astounded when she notices that Sayuri is the lead dancer for the Spring Dances and asks about it. Mother claims it's her fault for not keeping up with her dance classes and needs to practice more.
That night at the Spring Dances, she dances wonderfully as the brokenhearted Empress who dies in the cold after catching the Emperor with his courtesan and catches the attention of bidders, including the Baron (Mameha's danna). Sayuri and Mameha finds Dr. Crab and they explain Hatsumomo's reputation as a known liar. Angered over this, he reinvests in Sayuri's mizuage. The Baron invites Sayuri to his house for a party, but Mameha is against it. She warns Sayuri that having Bekku with her isn't a viable option because of his loyalty to Hatsumomo. Arriving there, she meets the Chairman and several Tokyo geisha in western clothes. The Baron gives Sayuri a kimono then, as he finds her so beautiful and believes he deserves a look, forcefully strips her.
After the party Mameha hears what happened and believes that the Baron took Sayuri's virginity, and claims that Sayuri's bids may not come through if she is found to be "worthless." Sayuri cries and tells Mameha that nothing happened and she is not worthless. That night the bid is finally placed by an elderly doctor known as Doctor Crab, for 15,000 yen—the highest mizuage bid in history. When Mameha mentions this, Mother decides to rescind on their deal right away. Seeing that Sayuri an excellent commodity for her financial earnings, Mother names her as the heiress of the okiya. This change breaks Pumpkin's heart because she was looking forward to a future of security in her old age. Hatsumomo is enraged and demanded to know why. She reminds Mother that she had originally promised the okiya to Pumpkin to be her heiress. Mother points out that Sayuri has not only already repaid her debt and is more successful in her career, she has made history with her successful mizuage. She mentions that Pumpkin is still struggling and hasn't had a decent client. When she runs out of the room, Sayuri begs for Mother to adopt them both. She refuses, reminding Sayuri that Pumpkin would only be Hatsumomo's puppet. Mother calmly asks how long it would take before she decided to turn against them and use Pumpkin as her puppet to kick her and Auntie out on the streets. Hatsumomo reminds her that she gave away her life, pointing out her loyalty to the okiya, the money she paid for their kimono, food and expensive ornaments. Mother tells her off that her impudence and dalliance with Koichi nearly ruined their reputation in Gion. That Hatsumomo is no better than the lower ranking prostitutes of the pleasure district of Miyagawa-Cho. Mother announces that it's time that she retires and that Sayuri will have her room. Hatsumomo refuses and tells Mother it's not over by a long shot.
Mameha tells Sayuri later that the bid was down to two people, Dr. Crab and the Baron, but Mameha let it go to Dr. Crab because of her feelings for the Baron, despite his bid being even higher. She also apologizes to Sayuri, revealing that Hatsumomo tried to sabotage her through Mr. Bekku and should've her own dresser, Mr. Itchoda, with her. When returning home, Sayuri finds Hatsumomo in her room, who found the Chairman's handkerchief and attempts to burn it, but unsuccessfully. Sayuri and Hatsumomo fight and accidentally start a fire, and finally to her breaking point, Hatsumomo purposely begins to burn the rest of the house and then leaves the room knowing she has reached the bottom. The next day, Mother kicks Hatsumomo out in the same kimono she was wearing the night of the fire, but her belonging are given to Sayuri as a final insult to it. She briefly looks at Sayuri having now been defeated and leaves.
Sayuri's prosperous life is then cut short by the outbreak of World War II. The Chairman is looking for Sayuri and Mameha. He asks Korin who is being put in a truck and she doesn't know, being lost without Hatsumomo. Mameha calls out for the Chairman. She and Sayuri are being told to get into a van, but isn't told where. The Chairman tells Mameha it's being sent to Osaka to one of his factories, but they can't go there because it's dangerous and a possible target for the Allied troops. He tells them to grab their things, explaining that he and Nobu are trying to find safe havens for the geishas away from the factories. The Chairman pays a rickshaw driver and helps Mameha in with her bags. She is to go his old friend, a physician who specializes in medicine further north from Kyoto and gives her the work documents to show the soldiers. She and Sayuri say their farewells as she leaves Gion. The Chairman leads her to another rickshaw driver and pays the man as well. He tells Sayuri that she's going to the hills of northwestern Japan work for Mr. Arashino, a kimono maker and old friend of Nobu's. If the soldiers try to stop her, she could show them her work documents to them regarding her work Arashino. The Chairman helps Sayuri in with her bags and gives her the documents. When she asks him why he's staying in Osaka despite the dangers, he explains that his company, Iwamura Electrics, is there and he needs to stay there. As Sayuri is leaving, the Chairman will express her gratitude to Nobu.
After the war, Sayuri is reunited with Nobu and whom he asks for her help entertaining an American Colonel named Derricks that is going into business with Nobu and the Chairman. She seeks the one help from Mameha in Gion. However, after what she went through, Mameha refuses to help entertain Col Derricks. She explains to Sayuri that after the Baron's suicide, she was left in desperate straits. Mameha sold everything of value for rations. It was difficult for her at first, but Mameha made her peace with the past. Now all she wants to do is live a more quieter and honest life renting rooms in her apartment complex. Sayuri convinces Mameha to be a geisha once more to impress Col. Derricks by reminding her about how with one look they can capture a man's heart. She then admits, she kept one kimono and agrees to help.
Later on, Sayuri heads to a former teahouse and meets back up with Pumpkin who is now a risqué, flirty escort/prostitute. She apologizes to Pumpkin for what she went through. Pumpkin reassures her that she's no longer upset because she is more happy in her life and agrees to help. Sayuri goes on a trip with Nobu, the Chairman, Pumpkin and the Americans to the Amami Islands. While they are conversing in an onsen, Sayuri participates in the game 'Truth and Lies', starting to explain the "story" of how, when she was a little girl, a 'handsome man was kind enough to buy me a cup of sweet ice'. Before she can continue, the Chairman interrupts and changes the subject, clearly uncomfortable with her statement.
Afterwards, the Colonel attempts to "hire" Sayuri for "services", but is rejected. Nobu saw the incident and confronts Sayuri (with the impression that they had made an arrangement) finally confessing his feelings and that he wants to be her danna. Sayuri is distraught and devises a plan to humiliate herself with the Colonel in front of Nobu. Mameha warns against this and Sayuri argues, reminding her of her love for the Baron. Upset, Mameha tells her that her behavior is going to ruin her similar to Hatsumomo and geishas are not free to love. Sayuri argues she wants a life away from the geisha and live in peace. She arranges for Pumpkin to bring Nobu by an abandoned theater at a predetermined time, and "stumble" upon Sayuri and the Colonel making love. But, because of her secret resentment of Sayuri for being adopted by Mother, Pumpkin brings the Chairman instead, claiming to Sayuri, "Now you know how it feels", Sayuri believes that the Chairman is lost to her forever.
A few days later Sayuri discards the Chairman's handkerchief by throwing it off a cliff above the sea, and later receives a call to go to the teahouse. While waiting, Sayuri expects Nobu to arrive, but instead the Chairman comes where he finally reveals to her that he knows she is Chiyo by saying, "Don't be afraid to look at me, Chiyo." He tells her that he was responsible for sending Mameha to her so that she could fulfill her dreams of becoming a geisha. Sayuri finally reveals her love to the Chairman, which she has been harboring for over fifteen years. The film ends with their loving embrace and kiss and a stroll through a beautiful Japanese garden with waterfalls and rocks.
- Zhang Ziyi as Chiyo Sakamoto/Sayuri Nitta
- Suzuka Ohgo as Young Chiyo Sakamoto
- Gong Li as Hatsumomo
- Kaori Momoi as Okasan/Mother
- Ken Watanabe as Ken Iwamura
- Michelle Yeoh as Mameha
- Kōji Yakusho as Nobu
- Youki Kudoh as Pumpkin
- Tsai Chin as Auntie
- Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Baron
- Kenneth Tsang as General
- Karl Yune as Koichi
Producer Steven Spielberg had been scheduled to film Memoirs of a Geisha as the follow-up to Saving Private Ryan. However fellow DreamWorks executive David Geffen had tried to persuade him not to take on the project as he said, "I don't think it's good enough for him". Whether or not he was dissuaded from the project, he went on to direct A.I. Artificial Intelligence instead.
The three leading non-Japanese actresses (Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh) were put through "geisha boot camp" before production commenced, during which they were trained in traditional geisha practices of musicianship, dance, and tea ceremony.
Production of the film took place from September 29, 2004 to January 31, 2005. It was decided by the producers that contemporary Japan looked much too modern to film a story which took place in the 1920s and '30s and it would be more cost-effective to create sets for the film on soundstages and locations in the United States, primarily in California.
The majority of the film was shot on a large set built on a ranch in Thousand Oaks, California which was a detailed recreation of an early twentieth-century geisha district in Kyoto, Japan. Most interior scenes were filmed in Culver City, California at the Sony Pictures Studios lot. Other locations in California included San Francisco, Moss Beach, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, Sacramento, Yamashiro's Restaurant in Hollywood, the Japanese Gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, and Downtown Los Angeles at the Belasco Theater on Hill Street.
Towards the end of production, some scenes were shot in Kyoto, Japan, including the Fushimi Inari Taisha the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto.
In post-production, one of the tasks of the sound editors was to improve upon the English pronunciation of the international cast. This sometimes involved piecing together different clips of dialogue from other segments of the film to form new syllables from the film's actors, some of whom spoke partially phonetic English when they performed their roles on-set. The achievement of the sound editors earned them an Academy Award nomination for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.
Western Box Office and Reviews
The British reviews for Memoirs of a Geisha were generally mixed. The New Statesman criticized Memoirs of a Geisha's plot, saying that after Hatsumomo leaves, "the plot loses what little momentum it had and breaks down into one pretty visual after another" and says that the film version "abandons the original's scholarly mien to reveal the soap opera bubbling below".
The Journal praised Ziyi, saying that she "exudes a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerablity" but said "too much of the character's yearning and despair is concealed behind the mask of white powder and rouge". London's The Evening Standard compared Memoirs of a Geisha to Cinderella and praised Gong Li, saying that "Li may be playing the loser of the piece but she saves this film" and Gong "endows Hatsumomo with genuine mystery". Eighteen days later, The Evening Standard put Memoirs of a Geisha on its Top Ten Films list. Glasgow's Daily Record praised the film, saying the "geisha world is drawn with such intimate detail that it seems timeless until the war, and with it the modern world comes crashing in".
In the United States, the film managed $57 million during its box office run. The film peaked at 1,654 screens, facing off against King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Fun with Dick and Jane. During its first week in limited release, the film screening in only eight theaters tallied up a $85,313 per theater average which made it second in highest per theater averages behind Brokeback Mountain for 2005. International gross reached $158 million.
Overall, the American reviews were mixed. Illinois' Daily Herald said that the "strong acting, meticulously created sets, beautiful visuals, and a compelling story of a celebrity who can't have the one thing she really wants make Geisha memorable". The Washington Times called the film "a sumptuously faithful and evocative adaption" while adding that "contrasting dialects may remain a minor nuisance for some spectators, but the movie can presumably count on the pictorial curiosity of readers who enjoyed Mr. Golden's sense of immersion, both harrowing and aesthetic, in the culture of a geisha upbringing in the years that culminated in World War II".
The film scored a 35% "Rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes but 82% of audiences liked it  and 54/100 on Metacritic, meaning "mixed or average review."
Controversy arose during casting of the film when some of the most prominent roles, including those of the geishas Sayuri, Hatsumomo and Mameha, did not go to Japanese actresses. Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) are both Chinese, whereas Michelle Yeoh (Mameha) is an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. More notable is the fact that all three were already prominent fixtures in Chinese cinema.
The film-makers defended the decision, however, and attributed "acting ability and star power" as their main priorities in casting the roles and director Rob Marshall noted examples such as Irish-Mexican actor Anthony Quinn being cast as a Greek man in Zorba the Greek.
Opinion in the Asian community was mixed. To some Chinese, the casting was offensive because they mistook geisha for prostitutes, and because it revived memories of wartime Japanese atrocities. The Chinese government canceled the film's release there because of such connections, and a website denounced star Zhang Ziyi as an "embarrassment to China." This was exacerbated by the word "Geiko" (芸妓?), a Japanese name for geisha used in the Kansai region, which includes Kyoto.
The second character (妓) could sometimes mean "prostitute" in the Japanese language, though it actually had a variety of meanings and there was a clear distinction between geisha and prostitutes which were called "Yūjo" (遊女?) in Japan. The character 妓 only means "prostitute" in Chinese, and the correct translation into Chinese of the word "geisha" is 艺伎 (traditional Chinese: 藝伎), which does not use it. Some Japanese have expressed offense that people of their own nationality had not gotten the roles. Other Asians defended the casting, including the film's main Japanese star Ken Watanabe who said that "talent is more important than nationality."
In defense of the film, Zhang spoke: “A director is only interested in casting someone he believes is appropriate for a role. For instance, my character had to go from age 15 to 35; she had to be able to dance, and she had to be able to act, so he needed someone who could do all that. I also think that regardless of whether someone is Japanese or Chinese or Korean, we all would have had to learn what it is to be a geisha, because almost nobody today knows what that means—not even the Japanese actors on the film."
Geisha was not meant to be a documentary. I remember seeing in the Chinese newspaper a piece that said we had only spent six weeks to learn everything and that that was not respectful toward the culture. It's like saying that if you're playing a mugger, you have to rob a certain number of people. To my mind, what this issue is all about, though, is the intense historical problems between China and Japan. The whole subject is a land mine. Maybe one of the reasons people made such a fuss about Geisha was that they were looking for a way to vent their anger."
Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out that the film was made by a Japanese-owned company, and that Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi outgross any Japanese actress even in the Japanese box office.
On a visit to Tokyo to promote the film, Zhang Ziyi received a mysterious parcel and letter, revealed to have been sent by an elderly Japanese woman who had once worked as a geisha. In her letter, the woman stated that she had been touched by the trailer of the film and expected the movie to bring back fond memories for her and her friends.
Inside the parcel were several exquisitely worked antique kimono. Zhang Ziyi was moved to tears by the gesture and sent the woman an invitation to the film's Japanese premiere. She also promised to wear one of the kimono to the event as a sign of her gratitude.
Differences from the novel
- The fire scene which leads to Hatsumomo's downfall doesn't happen in the novel. The novel instead shows the downfall of Hatsumomo to be a slow downward spiral, culminating in a final push from Sayuri and Mameha.
- In the novel, Granny has a more central role in Chiyo's young life. She is the one Auntie warns against angering the most aside Mother. This reason is because Granny's reputation in beating maids for their disobedience. The film reduces her role and instead it's Mother, Chiyo has to be careful in not angering.
- In the novel, Pumpkin actually warns Chiyo against running away. In the film, it's Auntie who warns her.
- In the novel, Auntie warns Chiyo against trusting Hatsumomo due to the latter's reputation in being a liar and a master manipulator. In the film, it is condensed.
- In the novel, Pumpkin never knew about Hatsumomo's dalliance with Koichi. Instead, Chiyo learns about one night when they're caught having sex in the okiya's bathhouse and tells Mother. In the film, Pumpkin tells Chiyo all about it and angering Hatsumomo for her loose lips. She too is warned by the older woman never to mention this to anyone.
- In the novel, Korin had a central role in Chiyo's young life and was Hatsumomo's sidekick. Her voice appeared deeper due to the years of drinking sake and smoking. The film, reduces her role as well as changing her future from working in the factories to being sent to one.
- In the novel, Chiyo showed class in asking one of the maids for Satsu(known as Yukiyo) outside the Tatsuyo home in the pleasure district of Miyagawa-Cho. She gives the two five minutes to speak before Satsu's next client appears. The film has them meeting outside the home.
- In the novel, Koichi is revealed to be a poor businessman and married. The film omits this.
- Unlike in the film which General Tottori was often entertained by Hatsumomo, he was Sayuri's danna in the novel.
- In the novel, Hatsumomo pays Chiyo off then falsely accuses her of selling a brooch. Mother isn't fooled by this and despite punishing Chiyo, she learns about the dalliance with Koichi. After finding semen on Hatsumomo, Mother slaps her across the face and punishes her by banning her from seeing Koichi again. She then puts everyone in the okiya under lockdown to punish them as well, decreeing that no one is to go out under any circumstances except for nightly meetings with clients or to do errands. In the film, Hatsumomo is seen crying while Chiyo is on her knees.
- In the novel after her failed escape, Auntie beats Chiyo harder than before and yells at her for being this stupid. Mother is angered at her for dishonoring the okiya and incurring further expenses with her broken arm. As punishment, she ceases all payments for Chiyo to continue her training as a geisha and is to pay back her debts as Mother's slave. She also informs her that Mrs. Tatsuyo called earlier and informed her that Satsu escaped from the pleasure district in Miyagawa-Cho. The films reduces this.
- In the novel, Chiyo gets a letter from Mr. Tanaka days later after she was punished. Auntie reads it to her, which he explains her parents death and why he sold her to a the okiya in Gion. He also mentions that Satsu escaped back to Yoroido to reunite with Mr. Sugi's son and run away with him the moment everyone saw her. In the film, Satsu was only mentioned by Mother, briefly and the letter from Mr. Tanaka is reduced.
- In the novel after learning Chiyo is now Mother's slave, Hatsumomo takes advantage of her new downgrade by being cruel to her as a form of revenge over losing Koichi. The film omits this.
- In the novel, Izuko, one of the geishas entertaining the Chairman tell him not to waste his time with Chiyo and they're going to be late for the Miyako Odori. The film had her more sympathetic, but still warning him.
- In the novel, Pumpkin begins her apprenticeship under Hatsumomo at the age of 12 and makes her debut at 15. The film has Pumpkin debuting on New Years Day and Chiyo is helping Auntie and Mother get both her and Hatsumomo ready for it. Once they leave, Chiyo is left to watch the okiya until they get back. Once she noticed Pumpkin having forgotten her shamisen, Chiyo chases after her and delivers it at the back of the Mizuki teahouse.
- Unlike in the film, Chiyo doesn't meet the Chairman again until after her debut as Sayuri and her meeting with Nobu at the sumo wrestling match.
- In the novel, Mameha and Chiyo meet at Granny's funeral. The film omits Granny's death and has them meet days after Chiyo's 15th birthday.
- In the novel, Chiyo resumes her apprenticeship as a geisha at 12 and under Mameha. In the film, she returns at 15.
- In the novel, Hatsumomo's rivalry with Mameha is explored more. The film omits this.
- Unlike the novel and during her meeting with Mameha, Mother had originally intended to sell Chiyo off to Mrs. Tatsuyo in the pleasure district of Miyagawa-Cho as compensation after Satsu's escape. Mameha convinced her not to, saying it would be a waste of beauty and talent Chiyo could've contributed to her.
- In the novel, Sayuri's debut is a success at Ichiriki(Mameha's principal teahouse). She never sought to humiliate Hatsumomo despite the latter's attempts to do so. When that didn't work, Hatsumomo tries spreading lies about Sayuri in her desperate attempt to drive out her competition and secure her own as head geisha through Pumpkin. In the film, after a successful witty comment, Hatsumomo slaps Sayuri and swears to destroy her.
- In the novel, Pumpkin's given geisha name is Hatsumiyo. The Hatsu part coming from both Hatsumomo and Tomihatsu(Hatsumomo's former big sister). Despite this, it was a failed geisha name and everyone kept referring to her as Pumpkin. This name was never given in the film.
- In the novel, Sayuri gets a higher role in the Miyako Odori after one of the senior geisha's had to drop out due to her broken arm. In the film, she has a lead role and which Hatsumomo is angered with as she wanted the role for either herself or Pumpkin.
- In the novel, Mameha is the Empress in the Miyako Odori's story of The Emperor and the Courtesan. In the film, it's Sayuri.
- In the novel, Sayuri is accompanied by Mr. Itchoda, Mameha's dresser to the Baron's party. In the film, it's Mr. Bekku, whom is involved in Hatsumomo's scheme.
- In the novel, Dr. Crab and Nobu are involved in the bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage. He later drops out due to how expensive it got and the Baron took over. In the film, Nobu refused to bid due to his principles.
- In the novel, Dr. Crab wins the bidding and Sayuri uses his record breaking sum to pay off the okiya. In the film, it's the Baron who won, but Mameha gave the win to Crab mainly due to her disgust to how he treated Sayuri.
- In the novel, Mother decides to adopt Sayuri right away and Hatsumomo fights with her against it. In the film, Mother taunts Hatsumomo for her failures as a geisha in never having a danna, her drunken nature and sleeping around with a poor man.
- In the novel, Hatsumomo is kicked out of the okiya for her attack on a popular kabuki actor and her reputation is tarnished. She is seen with her hair loose, wearing a simple white kimono to signify she is banished from Gion and she took all of her belongings with her. In the film, Mother kicked Hatsumomo out in the same black kimono that she wore to burn Sayuri's room. Her belonging are given to Sayuri instead as a final insult to her.
- In the novel, Sayuri was only revealed to be able to escape from the factories in Osaka and sent to a well known kimono maker, Mr. Arashino and his family, with Nobu's influence. The film shows her and Mameha getting help from the Chairman. Mameha was taken to Northern Japan where she worked as an assistant to a physician specializing in medicine. Sayuri was sent to Northwest Japan to Nobu's old friend, Arashino, to work as a kimono maker.
- In the novel, Pumpkin was next to leave, despite Sayuri begging Mother to adopt her as well. Her fate wasn't revealed until after the war when Sayuri asked Auntie about it. The Film omits this until after Sayuri returned to Gion.
- In the novel, Nobu asks Sayuri for her help in entertaining the newly appointed Deputy Minister Sato who's help is needed to rebuilt Iwamura Electrics. He doesn't like Sato that much. In the film, it's the American Col, Derricks, Nobu needs help from.
- In the novel, Mameha is seen back as a geisha entertaining American soldiers. In the film, she was more reluctant due to the years of war and wanted to live a more quieter life.
- In the novel, Sayuri noticed Pumpkin bears a haunting, but striking resemblance to Hatsumomo due to the loss of her baby fat on her round face from the years of poverty she lived in during the war after Mother kicked her out and having to survive as a prostitute. In the film, she's a flirty escort entertaining American soldiers.
- The novel revealed Pumpkin's resentment towards Sayuri for stealing away her future as Mother's heiress and her security in the okiya and that she purposely brought the Chairman to see her with Sato so he'd be disgusted with her. With him out of her life, Sayuri would be forced to accept Nobu as her danna. With that, she realized a part of Hatsumomo resided in Pumpkin for a long time.
- Unlike the film, Sayuri keeps the handkerchief.
- In the end of the novel, Sayuri has a son with the Chairman and has her rare blue-grey eyes. She never admits this to avoid possible controversy involving his intended successor. Sayuri retires as a Geisha and owns a teahouse in New York City, which Mother takes a keen interest in. However, she had already cut ties with Kyoto in effect and remains with him until the end of his life. The film ends this with Sayuri reflecting on her life.