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Geisha: A Life Hardcover – October 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

Now in her 50s, Mineko Iwasaki was one of the most famed geishas of her generation (and the chief informant for Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha). Her ascent was difficult, not merely because of the hard, endless training she had to undergo--learning how to speak a hyper-elevated dialect of Japanese and how to sing and dance gracefully while wearing a 44-pound kimono atop six-inch wooden sandals--but also because many of the elaborate, self-effacing rules of the art went against her grain. A geisha "is an exquisite willow tree who bends to the service of others," she writes. "I have always been stubborn and contrary. And very, very proud." And playful, too: one of the funniest moments in this bittersweet book describes a disastrous encounter with the queen of England and her all-too-interested husband.

Revealing the secrets of the geisha's "art of perfection," this graceful memoir documents a disappearing world. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

From age five, Iwasaki trained to be a geisha (or, as it was called in her Kyoto district, a geiko), learning the intricacies of a world that is nearly gone. As the first geisha to truly lift the veil of secrecy about the women who do such work (at least according to the publisher), Iwasaki writes of leaving home so young, undergoing rigorous training in dance and other arts and rising to stardom in her profession. She also carefully describes the origins of Kyoto's Gion Kobu district and the geiko system's political and social nuances in the 1960s and '70s. Although it's an autobiography, Iwasaki's account will undoubtedly be compared to the stunning fictional description of the same life in Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. Lovers of Golden's work-and there are many-will undoubtedly pick this book up, hoping to get the true story of nights spent in kimono. Unfortunately, Iwasaki's work suffers from the comparison. Her writing style, refreshingly straightforward at the beginning, is far too dispassionate to sustain the entire story. Her lack of reflection and tendency toward mechanical description make the work more of a manual than a memoir. In describing the need to be nice to people whom she found repulsive, she writes, "Sublimating one's personal likes and dislikes under a veneer of gentility is one of the fundamental challenges of the profession." Iwasaki shrouds her prose in this mask of objectivity, and the result makes the reader feel like a teahouse patron: looking at a beautiful, elegant woman who speaks fluidly and well, but with never a vulnerable moment.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Atria; First Edition edition (October 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743444329
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743444323
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (181 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #425,917 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

173 of 182 people found the following review helpful By debeehr on August 21, 2004
Format: Paperback
I first got interested in geisha reading Arthur Golden's MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, then decided to go hunting for more information on geisha to see how accurate his account was. I started with Liza Dalby's GEISHA, and then came to read this.

Mineko delivers an absorbing account of her life and training as a very top geisha in Gion, the most exclusive of Kyoto's geisha districts. For those who are comparing her tale to Golden's, keep in mind that Golden is writing fiction, in fact, almost fairy-tale-esque fiction (complete with wicked stepsister, wicked stepmother, fairy god-mother, handsome prince, etc.) Mineko's tale is true, and archly told; Mineko herself comes across as a very strong, in some places almost domineering personality, as one would expect given her position in the family she was adopted into and her family's high-status position in Gion. The strength of her personality makes reading this book a wonderful pleasure.

However, Mineko's position within the geisha hierarchy was very atypical. She was at the very top of the heap, with all sorts of perks and privileges due to her station that many other geisha did not have (atotori so everyone respects her from day one; she gets personal access to the Big Mistress, tremendous financial and professional support in launching her career from her very-high-status okiya etc.), and it's not clear in the book that she understood this at the time, or indeed understands this now.
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49 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Zack Davisson HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 14, 2004
Format: Paperback
Most people outside of Japan do not realize just how exclusive and secret the world of the Geishas is. Connections and wealth buy a seat in an Ochaya, and on the streets of Gion in Kyoto catching a glimpse of a Geiko (Geisha in the Kyoto dialect) is as rare as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Geiko move fast down the streets and alleyways, and a sighting is something to tell your friends about.
With "Geisha : A Life," Mineko Iwasaki lifts some of the veils of this fantasy world and shows that, underneath the make-up and fancy hairstyles, Geiko are just women, with the same thoughts and feelings and pride and emotion as everyone else. In some ways, this destroys the fantasy, being able to see "behind-the-scenes." The life of a Geiko is very difficult and somewhat...boring. Like a dedicated ballet dancer, the bulk of their life is training and practice, trying to achieve a near-impossible idea of body and movement.
"Geisha: A Life" is not compellingly written, nor as fascinating as the sexualized and fictional account "Memoirs of a Geisha." It is not as academically insightful and full of details as Liza Dalby's "Geisha." But it is honest and real. Mineko's account of her life is straightforward, without much decoration. After reading it, you will know what it is like to be a Geiko.
Woven into this account, perhaps unintentionally, is the loss of Japan's disappearing past. Mineko doesn't bat an eye when telling the story of how she leveled their 100-year old Geisha residence, in order to build a modern night club and hair salon because she thought it would make more money. She talks with hope of her artist husband someday becoming one of Japan's legendary Living Treasures, but doesn't see how she should belong in the same category. She feels loss for the fading world of the traditional Japanese arts, but keeps destroying them along with everyone else.
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45 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on June 29, 2007
Format: Paperback
It's unfair to compare this book to "Memoirs of a Geisha." Yes, Mineko Iwasaki was interviewed by Arthur Golden when he was working on his best-selling book, but "Memoirs of a Geisha" is a work of fiction. It's a fantastic book in its own right, but many of its depictions of life as a geisha are said to be very inaccurate. That's one of the reasons Iwasaki decided to write "Geisha: A Life." She wanted to set the record straight.

"Geisha: A Life" is the true story of Iwasaki's illustrious career as Japan's number one geiko. At the age of five, Iwasaki began training at an okiya in the Gion district of Kyoto. She was later adopted by the okiya's owner and named as its eventual successor. Iwasaki worked tirelessly to perfect her craft and went through a lot of difficult times. She eventually grew frustrated by the limitations of her career and retired at the age of 29 so that she could raise a family and follow her own dreams.

This book is full of many details regarding the everyday life of geishas. I can see why some fans of "Memoirs of a Geisha" are disappointed because this book is a lot more straightforward and technical than Gordon's novel. However, Iwasaki's story does not lack emotion or passion. Iwasaki is open and honest about many unpleasant experiences in her life: being separated from her parents, surviving an attempted rape by her nephew, etc. I guess those things don't even begin to compare to what the character of Sayuri endures in "Memoirs of a Geisha," but once again, Sayuri is a FICTIONAL CHARACTER! I don't understand how people can compare her and Iwasaki. Sayuri isn't real! End of story.

I've always been fascinated by the geisha tradition, and I loved this book because it sheds so much more insight into this mysterious and often misrepresented way of life. Iwasaki's story is amazing, and I'm glad she chose to share it with the world.
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