Zhang Ziyi (House of Flying Daggers)
Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins)
Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Gong Li (Hannibal Rising)
Samantha Futerman (21 & Over)
Mako (Conan The Barbarian)
Elizabeth Sung (Death Ring)
Kaori Momoi (Ghost In The Shell)
Ted Levine (The Silence of The Lambs)
Karl Yuen (Arrow)
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Showdown In Little Tokyo)
Minae Noji (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
Julia Ling (Chuck)
Chiyo Sakamoto (Suzuka Ohgo), a young girl from a poverty stricken fishing village, is sold along with her older sister Satsu (Samantha Futerman) into a life of servitude by her aging father (Mako). Chiyo is taken in by Mrs. Kayoko Nitta (Kaori Momoi), the Mother (proprietress) of a geisha house in Gion, one of the most prominent geisha districts in Kyoto, whereas Satsu is sold to a prostitution brothel. At the okiya, Chiyo meets another young girl named Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum), the cranky Granny (Kotoko Kawamura), and the okiya’s only working geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who is famous for her breathtaking beauty. Chiyo soon discovers Hatsumomo is secretly a cruel and jealous woman that views Chiyo as a potential rival due to her striking bluish-gray eyes along with being a change in Mother’s future financial dependence. Hatsumomo then goes out of her way to deliberately make Chiyo’s new life miserable by having her take the blame for everything and intentionally withholding information to her sister’s whereabouts in the pleasure district. However, Auntie (Tsai Chin) is aware of this and warns Chiyo against trusting and angering Hatsumomo, given her history with the ill-manner geisha.Chiyo tracks down Satsu and makes plans to run away together. However, upon returning to the okiya she discovers Hatsumomo with her boyfriend, Koichi (Karl Yune), which is against the rules of the Geisha lifestyle. When they are caught, Hatsumomo attempts to twist the situation by accusing Chiyo of stealing. Chiyo denies this and informs Mother of what she saw in the shed. As a result, everyone is barred from leaving the okiya at night except to attend work engagements and this further increases Hatsumomo’s anger towards Chiyo. On the night of their planned escape, Chiyo attempts to sneak out but falls off the rooftop and is seriously injured. As punishment for dishonoring the okiya, Mother tells Chiyo that she won’t invest any more money in her geisha training. She also informs Chiyo that both her parents (Mako and Elizabeth Sung) are dead. Chiyo misses her chance to flee and never sees Satsu again. She is also demoted from geisha training to working as a slave to pay off her increasing debts to Mother.One day, while crying on a riverbank, Chiyo is noticed by the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and his geisha companions. He buys her a shaved ice dessert and gives her his handkerchief with some money in it. Inspired by his act of kindness, Chiyo resolves to become a geisha so that she may one day become a part of the Chairman’s life.Several years later, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh) has begun her training as a maiko under Hatsumomo’s tutelage and Chiyo (Zhang Ziyi) is envious of it as she remains a maid under Mother. She is unexpectedly taken under the wing of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), one of Gion’s most successful geisha and long time rival of Hatsumomo’s. Although initially reluctant, Mother is persuaded by Mameha to allow Chiyo to train as a geisha. Under Mameha’s tutelage, Chiyo becomes a maiko and takes the name of Sayuri. She grows in popularity and Hatsumomo grows desperate that she tries to ruin Sayuri’s reputation. Predicting this, Mamaeha takes her to a sumo wrestling match where Sayuri reintroduced to the Chairman, who seems unaware of her previous identity as Chiyo, as well as his business associate Nobu Toshikazu (Kōji Yakusho), who takes a liking to her and of whom Hatsumomo finds repulsive. Meanwhile, Mameha orchestrates a bidding war for Sayuri’s mizuage between two men: Nobu and Dr. Crab (Randall Duk Kim), which will make her a full geisha. Upon learning what Mameha has planned, Hatsumomo spreads cruel rumors that Sayuri had been deflowered to Dr. Crab. However, Sayuri is named the lead dancer for a popular performance, which angers Hatsumomo as she was hoping for Pumpkin to be named the lead.At the performance, she attracts the attention of many men, including the Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) (Mameha’s danna), with her performance. When Dr. Crab congratulates Sayuri, she secretly convinces him to listen to a different opinion before taking the word of someone who lies. The Baron invites Sayuri to his estate for a sakura-viewing party, which Mameha is reluctant to let Sayuri attend but lets her go anyway. When the Baron presents a kimono to Sayuri in private at the party, he undresses her against her will in order to “take a look”, but does not go any further.Sayuri’s mizuage is won with a record-breaking bid of fifteen thousand yen. Mother, seeing Sayuri as a financial asset, names her as her adopted daughter and heiress to the okiya. This crushes Pumpkin, who was hoping that she would get adopted so she could have security in her old age, and enrages Hatsumomo. She is then told by Mother that she must give up her spacious room to Sayuri, which further outrages Hatsumomo who tried to remind her of her previous financial contribution. Mameha later tells Sayuri that the bid had ended up a contest between Dr. Crab and the Baron, Nobu having refused to partake in the bidding because it was against his principles. Mameha let it go to Dr. Crab because of her romantic feelings for the Baron, despite his bid being even higher. When returning home from the mizuage ceremony, Sayuri finds a drunken Hatsumomo in her room, where she has found the Chairman’s handkerchief. A fight ensues, during which a gas lantern is knocked over and ignites a fire and the okiya is partially destroyed by the flames. Hatsumomo is then kicked out of the okiya by Mother, her belongings given to Sayuri, and she is banished from Gion with her fate left unknown.Sayuri’s successful career is cut short by the outbreak of World War II. Sayuri and Mameha are separated, with Sayuri going to the hills to work for a kimono maker, an old friend of Nobu’s and Mameha going to a physician, the Chairman’s old friend. After the war, Sayuri is reunited with Nobu who needs her help with impressing an American Colonel (Ted Levine) who has the power to approve funding for the Chairman’s firm. Sayuri reunites with Mameha, who now makes a living renting rooms for the poor. Although she is reluctant to return to the geisha lifestyle after what she’s been through, she agrees to help impress Derricks. Sayuri is reacquainted with Pumpkin, who is now a flirty escort. Sayuri goes on a trip with Nobu, the Chairman, Mameha, Pumpkin, and the Americans to the Amami Islands.At Amami, the Colonel propositions Sayuri, but is rejected. Nobu witnesses the incident and confronts Sayuri. He finally confesses his feelings, telling her that he wants to become her danna. Knowing that entering into a relationship with Nobu will destroy any chance of her being with the Chairman, Sayuri is distraught and devises a plan. Mameha catches on to it and warns her against it because of the kindness Nobu shown her. She wants Sayuri to accept him as her danna and not end up like Hatsumomo did. She refuses and enlists Pumpkin’s help to have Nobu catch her seemingly being intimate with the Colonel. However, because of her secret resentment of Sayuri, Pumpkin brings the Chairman instead, having full knowledge of Sayuri’s feelings towards him. When Sayuri confronts her, Pumpkin coldly tells her that she did a lot of favors for her in the past and she stole her chances of being adopted by Mother. She hoped by having the Chairman see her with Derricks, he would be disgusted by Sayuri’s behavior and she would have to accept Nobu as her danna.A few days later, after returning to Gion, Sayuri receives a call to go to the teahouse. Sayuri expects to see Nobu, but instead the Chairman comes and finally reveals to her that he has known all along that she was the girl at the riverbank. He tells her that he had told Nobu about the affair after confronting Pumpkin for her behavior, effectively destroying Nobu’s affections for Sayuri and his desire to be her danna. He also reveals that he was responsible for sending Mameha to her so that she could fulfill her dreams of becoming a geisha. Sayuri finally reveals her love to the Chairman, and the film ends with their loving embrace and kiss and a stroll through the garden.
Memoirs of a Geisha does not submit all its secrets on first viewing; there are many layers of meaning and mystery to be seen again and again.