Nov 19

“Lady Maiko” – Film Review from the 18th Japanese Film Festival (Australia and New Zealand)


By Rafael Villadiego (Nagasaki-ken 2010-2013), also available on Green Tea Grafitti.

Lady Maiko

Maiko wa Laaaaady

A comedic, Broadway-musical reworking of Audrey Hepburn’s classic My Fair Lady, wrapped in the traditional trappings of geisha and maiko regalia. Set amidst a backdrop of a contemporary Kyoto transitioning between the golden recollections of the past and the everyday realities of the present.

Taking place in the unobtrusive little corner of Shimohachiken – that was once an illustrious geisha district in its heyday, but has since fallen on hard times – it still seeks to uphold the old tea house traditions by maintaining at least one maiko in their district. Unfortunately, that maiko, Momoharu (Tabata Tomoko) is pushing 30 and longs to be released from her unfair restrictions and graduate into a true geisha.

Enter Haruko (Kamishiraishi Mone), a naive young country girl with her head full of dreams of becoming a geisha. After discovering a photograph of her late mother dressed as a maiko in her youth and reading Momoharu’s hapless blog, she eventually decides to leave her adoptive grandparents behind and make the journey to Bansuraku Teahouse in Kyoto. But, having no formal introduction or letters of recommendation, and plagued with a backward north-south country bumpkin accent, the odds seem stacked against her.

However, she is taken under the wing of local college linguistic specialist, Professor Kyono (Hasegawa Hiroki) who makes a friendly wager with another regular tea house patron Kitano (Kishibe Ittoku) that he can transform Haruko into a top notch maiko.

What follows is a singing and dancing extravaganza as a colorful cast of characters unfold all the pomp and circumstance of a Broadway musical, with a decidedly Japanese twist.

Veteran director Suo Masayuki of Shall we dance? fame returns to the fore with this whimsical musical confection that is sure to delight fans of musical theater. It is also a fine diversion for linguists of regional Japanese dialects or scholars of traditional geisha culture. In fact, Suo is a dedicated auteur of authenticity who offers delightfully disguised lessons in language, culture and tradition. Approaching his subject matter with gusto and treating it with the utmost reverence and respect – he also shows that he is more than willing to have some fun along the way.

Offering an exuberant display of traditional Japanese dance fused with western Broadway musical sensibilities, the film feels almost like an oxymoron, with its improbable mix of genres and styles. But somehow this unique juxtaposition just seems to work, as it sweeps audiences along on sheer energy and exuberance.

There is one particular musical number which plays perfectly on the classic lines of “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”, but with a Japanese slant that more than makes it its own.

At the heart of this film is a classic underdog story, where if you are willing to try your best and weather the odds, you can overcome whatever comes your way and ultimately succeed. This is Haruko’s story, and we are invited along to share in her journey of discovery as we take a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the rarefied world of geisha and maiko culture.

In this regard, director Suo was fortunate to secure the services of newcomer Kamishiraishi Mone. Beating out 800 other applicants in the Toho Cinderella Contest, 16-year-old Kamishiraishi is quite a find and more than holds her own amongst the veteran cast in the demanding song and dance routines. We glimpse this world for the first time through her bedazzled eyes, with all the characters poised to perfection, the costumes colorfully coiffed and the sets exquisitely appointed.

But despite these elaborate production values, soaring songs and dazzling dance routines, there was just something missing that stopped the film from coming entirely together for me. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what was lacking. I am usually a sucker for a good song and dance, yet something prevented me from being swept off my feet completely. Perhaps the narrative around the musical was not as strong or believable as I would have hoped, to live up to the sheer exuberance on show. A fantastical confection, light as a feather, that possibly lacked the necessary substance to keep it grounded. The eventual low after the high.

Like a dream on waking.


Lady Maiko (Maiko wa Lady) by Suo Masayuki, released September 13 2014 in Japan, starring Kamishiraishi Mone, Hasegawa Hiroki, Fuji Sumiko, Tabata Tomoko, Kusakari Tamiyo.

Comments are closed.

Page Rank