Long before Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" became a bestselling novel and a Hollywood movie, the Japanese geisha was an intriguing and enigmatic subject. Now along comes "Hannari: Geisha Modern," a documentary that examines contemporary geishas at work and in training.
Written and directed by Miyuki Sohara, "Hannari" focuses, like Golden's book, on Kyoto's geisha subculture. But while his novel took place in the period leading up to World War II, "Hannari" examines modern-day geishas, or geikos, as the performance artists are known. Dating from the 15th century, the geisha is a curious anachronism: a heavily made-up, elaborately garbed female entertainer who spends years in training. When she's not dancing onstage or reenacting a traditional folk tale, the geisha will wait on customers in ochayas, or teahouses. Though thousands of geishas were employed around 1900, narrator Maxwell Caulfield notes, only about 300 work in Kyoto today.
Thematically all over the map — without any chosen route or evident destination — "Hannari" offers extensive footage of geishas in training; the okiyas or boardinghouses where the maikos or junior geikos, are groomed; and most interesting, the artisans who painstakingly craft the geisha's 20-pound costume and hand-painted accessories. Sohara had remarkable access to the closed-door community: Interviews take place with geishas young and old, and a significant portion of the film documents theatrical performances, which are probably more engaging in person but come off as leaden on screen.
Theoretically, the endangerment of the geisha tradition offers a compelling premise for a nonfiction film; unfortunately, that thesis is buried so deeply in this poorly structured documentary that it's nearly lost altogether. (Five editors are credited, which helps to explain why the film lacks a distinct voice.) It's not until a full 80 minutes into this 94-minute film that Sohara raises the question of how to save the geisha way of life. More to the point, she never clarifies the distinctions between modern and ancient geishas, instead running footage that seemingly illustrates how little has changed.
With more cultural context and less exposition, the film might have had a stronger point of view. Instead, it comes off like a travelogue with beautiful footage (and inordinate images of cherry blossoms, pagodas and Japanese maples). What might have been a chance to get under the skin, or at least the makeup of the geisha, "Hannari" is a missed opportunity. In the end, it's almost as superficial, distant and unknowable as its subjects.
MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time, 1 hour, 34 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.