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Geisha, A Life
By Mineko Iwasaki

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Geisha, a Life

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Geisha, a Life
By Mineko Iwasaki, with Rande Brown
Thorndike Press - Large Print, (2003)
ISBN: 0-7862-5158-1
Genre: Biography

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - May 25, 2003

Mineko Iwasaki was a geisha. She started her training to become a geisha when she was only five years old, and she retired from the profession when she was twenty-nine. Geisha, A Life is Mineko's extraordinary recounting of her life during the twenty-five years that she spent in the Iwasaki Geisha House in Kyoto Japan. In recounting her tale, Mineko offers readers a unique glimpse into the world of the geishas.

Mineko was the eleventh child born to her parents. Born in 1949, she entered a Japan that was still recovering from the consequences of World War II, and her parents were not wealthy. Out of necessity they had 'sold' three of Mineko's older sisters to the Iwasaki Geisha House. Her eldest sister, Yaeko, was trained to be a geisha, and as heir to the owner of the Iwasaki Geisha House. Yaeko, however turned out to be unsuited to the job of running the Geisha House, and a new heir-apparent was selected - Mineko.

Unlike her sisters, Mineko's entrance into the Geisha House was entirely voluntary and when she was ten years old she was formally adopted into the Iwasaki family. In this detailed account of her life, Mineko describes the intense training that she underwent as she prepared to become a geisha. She not only had to contend with a regular academic school schedule, but she also studied dance, calligraphy, and the intricacies of the Japanese tea ceremony. She also took singing lessons and learned how to play the shamisen and the koto. Throughout this narrative, Mineko also explains the importance of the kimono, and how a geisha prepares for a performance, including details about make-up, hair style, clothing, and the need to learn about a client in order to be able to converse intelligently with them.

The most intriguing aspects of this narrative are Mineko's account about exactly what a geisha is, what their duties are, and what they are not. For example, Mineko dispels the myth that Geisha Houses' are "dens of ill repute" (pg 121). She also examines the personal freedoms that a geisha has, as compared to 'regular' women. Mineko also examines that various stages of a geisha's career as she passes from being a mere student to a maiko, and then on to becoming a full-fledge geisha.

Geisha, A Life offers readers a rare glimpse at an ancient art form that is rapidly being degraded by modernity. While this text offers an in-depth look at the life of a geisha in general, it is also a biographical work that chronicles Mineko's life until her retirement. From the text it is obvious that she is a remarkably talented and literate person, and she was a real geiko - a woman of art. She also comes across as somewhat spoiled and headstrong. Mineko was idealized by her parents and Madame Oima, her adopted mother. Also, as the heir and future owner of the Iwasaki Geisha House, she wielded a great deal of power and prestige over her compatriots at a very young age. She was also a real star in her day, and her face appeared on everything from billboards to tee-shirts. She was also a much sought after geisha due to her artistic abilities, and she was often selected to entertain heads-of-state, including Queen Elizabeth and President Ford. Therefore it is not remarkable that she developed a bit of an ego, nor that she comes across in this book as being a bit arrogant.

From start to finish I found this book to be fascinating. I was especially intrigued by the details provided on the training that a geisha must go through, and the ancient traditions and bureaucracies that a modern geisha must deal with. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book, however, is Mineko's decision to retire at such a young age and her explanation of why the geishas are quickly becoming anachronisms in the modern artistic world of Japan.

In short, I can sum up this book in one word - mesmerizing!

Note: Mineko Iwasaki was the inspiration and the main informant for Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur A Golden's fictional work about the life of a geisha.

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