When Japan does musicals, even Hollywood style musicals, it tends to go for the backstage variety or a kind of hybrid form in which the idol/singing star protagonist gets a few snazzy numbers which somehow blur into the real world. Masayuki Suo’s previous big hit, Shall We Dance, took its title from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song featured in the King and I but it’s Lerner and Loewe he turns to for an American style song and dance fiesta relocating My Fair Lady to the world of Kyoto geisha, Lady Maiko (舞妓はレディ, Maiko wa Lady) . My Fair Lady was itself inspired by Shaw’s Pygmalion though replaces much of its class conscious, feminist questioning with genial romance. Suo’s take leans the same way but suffers somewhat in the inefficacy of its half hearted love story seeing as its heroine is only 15 years old.
Country bumpkin Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) arrives in the elegant Kyoto geisha quarters with only one hope – to become a maiko! However, despite the scarcity of young girls wanting to train, Haruko’s hopes are dashed by the head geisha who finds it impossible to understand anything she’s saying thanks to her extraordinarily rare accent which is an odd mix of north and south country dialects. Luckily for her, a linguistics professor who has an unhealthy obsession with rare dialectical forms overhears her speech patterns and is instantly fascinated. Striking up a bet with another tea house patron, Kyono (Hiroki Hasegawa) takes on the challenge of training Haruko to master the elegant Kyoto geisha accent in just six months.
The teahouses and the culture which goes with them are a part of the old world just barely hanging on in the bright new modern era. Haruko first became infatuated with all things maiko thanks to an online blog kept by the teahouse’s only current star, Momoko (Tomoko Tabata) – the daughter of the proprietor still only a maiko at age thirty precisely because of the lack of candidates to succeed her. Despite this intrusion of the modern, the way of the geisha remains essentially the same as it has for centuries with all of the unfairness and exploitation it entails. Hence, most of the women working in the teahouses are part-timers brought in for big events with only rudimentary training and even those who have spent a significant amount of time learning their craft lament that they don’t get paid a real salary and even their kimono and accessories technically belong to the teahouse.
Despite being on the fringes of the sex trade, as the professor’s assistant takes care to warn Haruko, there’s still something glamorous about the the arcane teahouse world bound up in ancient traditions and complicated rituals of elegance. Haruko faces a steep learning curve as a clumsy country girl who doesn’t even know how to sit “seiza” without her legs going numb. Learning to speak like a Kyoto native may be the least of her worries seeing as she has to learn how to dress in kimono, play a taiko drum and shamisen, and perform the traditional dances to perfection.
This is a musical after all and so the maiko dance routines eventually give way to more conventional choreography and large scale broadway numbers. The title song is particularly catchy and resurfaces at several points though the score as a whole is cheerful and inventive, incorporating a classic broadway sound with modern twist fused with the traditional music of the teahouse. Naoto Takenaka makes a typically creepy appearance displaying a fine voice for a comic number dedicated to the art of being a male maid to a geisha house but the big set piece is reserved for a comic take on the “Rain in Spain” in which the linguistics professor oddly wonders where all the water goes when it’s “pissing it down in Kyoto”. Unfortunately much of this revolves around linguistic jokes which are impossible to translate though the scene as a whole does its job well enough in introducing us to Haruko’s travails in the world of elocution. Other routines featuring the backstories of some of the minor characters also have a pleasantly retro quality inspired by period cinema complete with painted backdrops and old fashioned studio bound cinematography.
Though charming enough, Haruko’s progress is perhaps too conventional to move Lady Maiko far beyond the realms of cheerful fluff. Though Suo wisely keeps the romance to a minimum, Haruko’s growing feelings for the professor as well as a possible connection with his assistant are a little uncomfortable given her youth and the age differences involved even if the professor remains completely unaware. Unlike the source material Haruko’s passage is otherwise presented without complication (save for brief forays into the darkside of the geisha trade) as the country girl makes good, achieving her goals through hard work, perseverance, and the support of the community. In the end it’s all just far too nice, but then that’s not such a bad problem to have and there are enough pretty dance routines and warmhearted comedy to charm even the most jaded of viewers.
Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.
Original trailer (no subtitles)