Memoirs of a Geisha (film)

Memoirs of a Geisha (film)
Memoirs of a Geisha

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Rob Marshall
Produced by Steven Spielberg
Gary Barber
Roger Birnbaum
Douglas Wick
Lucy Fisher
Written by Robin Swicord
Based on Memoirs of a Geisha by
Arthur Golden
Starring Zhang Ziyi
Ken Watanabe
Gong Li
Michelle Yeoh
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Dion Beebe
Editing by Pietro Scalia
Studio Spyglass Entertainment
Amblin Entertainment
Red Wagon Entertainment
Distributed by USA:
Columbia Pictures
DreamWorks (co-distributor)
Spyglass Entertainment
Buena Vista International
Release date(s) December 9, 2005 (2005-12-09)
Running time 145 minutes
Country Japan
United States
Language English
Budget $85 million
Box office $162,242,962

Memoirs of a Geisha is a 2005 film adaptation of the novel of the same name, produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Spyglass Entertainment and by Douglas Wick's Red Wagon Productions. It was directed by Rob Marshall. It was released in the United States on December 9, 2005 by Columbia Pictures and DreamWorks. It stars Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, Youki Kudoh, and Suzuka Ohgo. Ohgo plays the younger Sayuri in the movie, which was filmed in southern and northern California and in several locations in Kyoto, including the Kiyomizu temple and the Fushimi Inari shrine.

Memoirs of a Geisha tells the story of a young girl, Chiyo Sakamoto, who is sold into slavery by her family. Her new family then sends her off to school to become a geisha. This movie is mainly about older Chiyo and her struggle as a geisha to find love, in the process making a lot of enemies. The film was nominated and won numerous awards, including nominations for six Academy Awards, and eventually won three: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

The Japanese release of the film was titled Sayuri, the titular character's geisha name.



The film, set in Japan during the Showa Era, tells the story of Chiyo Sakamoto (portrayed by Suzuka Ohgo as a child and by Zhang Ziyi as an adult) is a young, poor, Japanese girl with who is sold along with her older sister Satsu into a life of servitude by her parents when she is nine years old. Chiyo is taken in by the proprietress of a geisha house, Mother (Kaori Momoi), but Satsu is rejected and is sold to another house in the "pleasure district" of the Hanamachi. At the okiya (geisha house) she meets another young girl named "Pumpkin" (Youki Kudoh). Both girls are sent off to geisha school but Chiyo dishonors the okiya by attempting to run away and then is forced to work to pay off the debt of her purchase and the soiling of a silk kimono owned by a well-known geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), which Chiyo was blackmailed into defacing by another geisha, Hatsumomo (Gong Li), who is famous, beautiful and cruel who also lives in the okiya. Chiyo is beaten in the courtyard by Mother, but Auntie convinces her to let herself take over, telling Chiyo that she will "beat you hard, so Mother will not beat you harder." Mother is seen indoors listening to the radio, and turns the volume up louder so as to ignore Chiyo's screams.

Chiyo runs away to find her sister Satsu and they arrange to meet by the bridge the day after as soon as it is dark and escape together. When she returns in secret, she sees Hatsumomo and a young man named Koichi (Karl Yune) having sex in the shed. Mother hears and Hatsumomo shoos Koichi away and makes it appear that Chiyo was stealing money, after asking her why she was back (Hatsumomo had assumed that she would be gone that day, as Chiyo had: Satsu had persuaded her to wait until the night after). Facing a beating, Chiyo tells Mother that Hatusmomo was having sex with a man, Mother proves it by reaching under her kimono; and slaps Hatsumomo telling her "What do you think? That a geisha is free to love? Never." Hatsumomo never sees Koichi again.

When Chiyo escapes again to run away with her sister, she is forced to use a different route. Since the okiya gate is locked after Hatsumomo's disgrace, Chiyo climbs over rooftops until she can see the bridge in the distance. Chiyo falls from a rooftop and ends up back in the okiya being seen to by a doctor. Mother discusses the debts she has accounted for and explains that Satsu ran away that night, without waiting for Chiyo. She never sees her again, and Mother tells her to forget that she ever had a sister, explaining, 'We are your only family now.' Mother then places a package on her stomach, which contains a letter (read to her by Auntie; since Chiyo cannot read) reporting the death of her mother, and then, a few weeks after, her father. Chiyo feels she cannot sink lower, as her escapades have caused her to be taken out of geisha training and work as a slave to pay off her debts.

One day while crying in the street, the young Chiyo is noticed by the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) and his geisha companions. Chiyo is afraid to make eye contact with the Chairman, who says "Don't be afraid to look at me." He then buys her an iced sorbet (kakigōri) 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. She spends the money, not on food, but on prayer, wishing to see him again. Chiyo, now a young woman, is taken under the wing of Mameha, who has forgiven her for her actions as a child. Under Mameha's tutelage, Chiyo becomes a maiko (geisha in training) and then takes the name of Sayuri, the most famous geisha in all Gion, Kyoto. Hatsumomo becomes Sayuri's rival and seeks to destroy her. Through her work as a geisha, Sayuri reunites with the Chairman and longs to catch his attention, but instead has to lead on the Chairman's friend and business partner Nobu, who falls fast for her. Sayuri grows in popularity and Hatsumomo spreads lies and rumors to ruin Sayuri's reputation. Meanwhile Mameha starts a bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage which will make her a full geisha. Sayuri gets named the lead dancer for the Spring Dances, where she dances wonderfully and catches the attention of bidders, including the Baron (Mameha's danna), who invites Sayuri to his house for a party, gives her a kimono then, as he finds her so beautiful and believes he deserves a look, forcefully strips her.

After the party Mameha hears what happened and believes that the Baron took Sayuri's virginity, and claims that Sayuri's bids may not come through if she is found to be "worthless." Sayuri cries and tells Mameha that nothing happened and she is not worthless. That night the bid is finally placed by an elderly doctor known as Doctor Crab, for 15,000 yen—the highest mizuage bid in history. Mother then chooses to "adopt" Sayuri as the heiress of the okiya, a title that Pumpkin and Hatsumomo had been longing for. Mameha tells Sayuri later that the bid was down to two people, Dr. Crab and the Baron, but Mameha let it go to Dr. Crab because of her feelings for the Baron, despite his bid being even higher. When returning home, Sayuri finds Hatsumomo in her room, who found the Chairman's handkerchief and attempts to burn it, but unsuccessfully. Sayuri and Hatsumomo fight and accidentally start a fire, and finally to her breaking point, Hatsumomo purposely begins to burn the rest of the house and then leaves, knowing she has reached the bottom.

Sayuri's prosperous life is then cut short by the outbreak of World War II and while the safety of Sayuri and Mameha is ensured by the Chairman, they must endure a life of hard labour. Sayuri and Mameha are separated, with Sayuri going to the hills to work for a kimono maker. After the war, Sayuri is reunited with Mameha, and they become geisha once more to impress an American Colonel that are going into business with Nobu and the Chairman. Sayuri meets back up with Pumpkin who is now a risqué, flirty escort/prostitute (trying to act like geisha) and goes on a trip with Nobu, the Chairman, Pumpkin and the Americans to the Amami Islands. While they are conversing in an onsen, Sayuri participates in the game 'Truth and Lies', starting to explain the "story" of how, when she was a little girl, a 'handsome man was kind enough to buy me a cup of sweet ice'. Before she can continue, the Chairman interrupts and changes the subject, clearly uncomfortable with her statement.

Afterwards, the Colonel attempts to "hire" Sayuri for "services", but is rejected. Nobu saw the incident and confronts Sayuri (with the impression that they had made an arrangement) finally confessing his feelings and that he wants to be her danna. Sayuri is distraught and devises a plan to humiliate herself with the Colonel in front of Nobu. She arranges for Pumpkin to bring Nobu by an abandoned theater at a predetermined time, and "stumble" upon Sayuri and the Colonel making love. But, because of her secret resentment of Sayuri for being adopted by Mother, Pumpkin brings the Chairman instead, claiming to Sayuri, "Now you know how it feels", Sayuri believes that the Chairman is lost to her forever.

A few days later Sayuri discards the Chairman's handkerchief by throwing it off a cliff above the sea, and later receives a call to go to the teahouse. While waiting Sayuri expects Nobu to arrive, but instead the Chairman comes where he finally reveals to her that he knows she is Chiyo by saying, "Don't be afraid to look at me, Chiyo." He tells her 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, which she has been harbouring for over fifteen years. The film ends with their loving embrace and kiss and a stroll through a beautiful Japanese garden with waterfalls and rocks.




Producer Steven Spielberg had been scheduled to film Memoirs of a Geisha as the follow-up to Saving Private Ryan. However fellow DreamWorks executive David Geffen had tried to persuade him not to take on the project as he said, "I don't think it's good enough for him". Whether or not he was dissuaded from the project, he went on to direct A.I. Artificial Intelligence instead.[1]

The three leading non-Japanese actresses (Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh) were put through "geisha boot camp" before production commenced, during which they were trained in traditional geisha practices of musicianship, dance, and tea ceremony.


The orange gateways at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto, used in a scene wherein a young Sayuri runs through them

Production of the film took place from September 29, 2004 to January 31, 2005. It was decided by the producers that contemporary Japan looked much too modern to film a story which took place in the 1920s and '30s and it would be more cost-effective to create sets for the film on soundstages and locations in the United States, primarily in California. The majority of the film was shot on a large set built on a ranch in Thousand Oaks, California which was a detailed recreation of an early twentieth-century geisha district in Kyoto, Japan. Most interior scenes were filmed in Culver City, California at the Sony Pictures Studios lot. Other locations in California included San Francisco, Moss Beach, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, Sacramento, Yamashiro's Restaurant in Hollywood, the Japanese Gardens at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, and Downtown Los Angeles at the Belasco Theater on Hill Street. Towards the end of production, some scenes were shot in Kyoto, Japan, including the Fushimi Inari Taisha the head shrine of Inari, located in Fushimi-ku, Kyoto.


In post-production, one of the tasks of the sound editors was to improve upon the English pronunciation of the international cast. This sometimes involved piecing together different clips of dialogue from other segments of the film to form new syllables from the film's actors, some of whom spoke partially phonetic English when they performed their roles on-set. The achievement of the sound editors earned them an Academy Award nomination for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.


In the Western hemisphere, the film received mixed reviews. In China and Japan, responses were sometimes very negative due to various controversies that arose from the film's casting and its relationship to history.

Western box office and reviews

The British reviews for Memoirs of a Geisha were generally mixed. The New Statesman criticized Memoirs of a Geisha 's plot, saying that after Hatsumomo leaves, "the plot loses what little momentum it had and breaks down into one pretty visual after another" and says that the film version "abandons the original's scholarly mien to reveal the soap opera bubbling below".[2] The Journal praised Ziyi, saying that she "exudes a heartbreaking innocence and vulnerablity" but said "too much of the characters' yearning and despair is concealed behind the mask of white powder and rouge".[3] London's The Evening Standard compared Memoirs of a Geisha to Cinderella and praised Gong Li, saying that "Li may be playing the loser of the piece but she saves this film" and Gong "endows Hatsumomo with genuine mystery".[4] Eighteen days later, The Evening Standard put Memoirs of a Geisha on its Top Ten Film list.[5] Glasgow's Daily Record praised the film, saying the "geisha world is drawn with such intimate detail that it seems timeless until the war, and with it the modern world comes crashing in".[6]

In the United States, the film managed $57 million during its box office run. The film peaked at 1,654 screens,[citation needed] facing off against King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Fun with Dick and Jane. During its first week in limited release, the film screening in only eight theaters tallied up a $85,313 per theater average which made it second in highest per theater averages behind Brokeback Mountain for 2005.[citation needed] International gross reached $158 million.[7]

Overall, the American reviews were mixed. Illinois's Daily Herald said that the "[s]trong acting, meticulously created sets, beautiful visuals, and a compelling story of a celebrity who can't have the one thing she really wants make Geisha memorable".[8] The Washington Times called the film "a sumptuously faithful and evocative adaption" while adding that "[c]ontrasting dialects may remain a minor nuisance for some spectators, but the movie can presumably count on the pictorial curiosity of readers who enjoyed Mr. Golden's sense of immersion, both harrowing and esthetic, in the culture of a geisha upbringing in the years that culminated in World War II".[9]

The film scored a 35% "Rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes but 82% of audiences liked it[10] and 54/100 on Metacritic, meaning "mixed or average review."[11]

Casting controversy

Controversy arose during casting of the film when some of the most prominent roles, including those of the geishas Sayuri, Hatsumomo and Mameha, did not go to Japanese actresses. Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri) and Gong Li (Hatsumomo) are both Chinese, whereas Michelle Yeoh (Mameha) is an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. More notable is the fact that all three were already prominent fixtures in Chinese cinema.

The film-makers defended the decision, however, and attributed "acting ability and star power" as their main priorities in casting the roles and director Rob Marshall noted examples such as Irish-Mexican actor Anthony Quinn being cast as a Greek man in Zorba the Greek.[12]

Opinion in the Asian community was mixed. To some Chinese, the casting was offensive because they mistook geisha for prostitutes, and because it revived memories of wartime Japanese atrocities.[citation needed] The Chinese government canceled the film's release there because of such connections, and a website denounced star Zhang Ziyi as an "embarrassment to China."[13] This was exacerbated by the word "Geigi" (芸妓?), a Japanese name for geisha used in the Kansai region, which includes Kyoto. The second character () could sometimes mean "prostitute" in Japanese language, though it actually had a variety of meanings and there was a clear distinction between geisha and prostitutes which were called "Yūjo" (遊女?) in Japan. The character 妓 only means "prostitute" in Chinese, and the correct translation into Chinese of the word "geisha" is 艺伎 (traditional Chinese: 藝伎), which does not use it. Some Japanese have expressed offense that people of their own nationality had not gotten the roles. Other Asians defended the casting, including the film's main Japanese star Ken Watanabe who said that "talent is more important than nationality."[14]

In defense of the film, Zhang spoke:

A director is only interested in casting someone he believes is appropriate for a role. For instance, my character had to go from age 15 to 35; she had to be able to dance, and she had to be able to act, so he needed someone who could do all that. I also think that regardless of whether someone is Japanese or Chinese or Korean, we all would have had to learn what it is to be a geisha, because almost nobody today knows what that means—not even the Japanese actors on the film.

Geisha was not meant to be a documentary. I remember seeing in the Chinese newspaper a piece that said we had only spent six weeks to learn everything and that that was not respectful toward the culture. It's like saying that if you're playing a mugger, you have to rob a certain number of people. To my mind, what this issue is all about, though, is the intense historical problems between China and Japan. The whole subject is a land mine. Maybe one of the reasons people made such a fuss about Geisha was that they were looking for a way to vent their anger.[15]

Film critic Roger Ebert pointed out that the film was made by a Japanese-owned company, and that Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi outgross any Japanese actress even in the Japanese box office.[16]

Chinese responses

The film received some hostile responses in Mainland China, including its banning by the People's Republic of China. Relations between Japan and Mainland China were particularly tense due to three main factors: Japan had recently revised its history textbooks, which downplayed its wartime atrocities against China; secondly, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a number of visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors all Japan's war dead, including some who were convicted war criminals, which was denounced by China's foreign ministry as honoring them; and lastly, China helped to ensure Japan did not receive a seat on the UN Security Council.[17] Writer Hong Ying argued that "Art should be above national politics".[18] Nevertheless, the release of Memoirs of a Geisha into this politically-charged situation added to cultural conflict within and between China and Japan.

The film was originally scheduled to be shown in cinemas in the People's Republic of China on February 9, 2006. The Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television decided to ban the film on February 1, 2006 considering the film as "too sensitive". In doing so, it overturned a November decision to approve the film for screening.[19]

The film is set in Japan during World War Two, when the Second Sino-Japanese War was taking place. During this time, Japan captured and forced Chinese women as “comfort women” for their men.[20] Controversy arose in China from an apparent confusion of equating geisha with prostitution, and thus the connection with, and reminder of, comfort women being used in Japan at that time.

Newspaper sources, such as the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post and the Shanghai Youth Daily, quoted the fears that the film may be banned by censors; there were concerns that the casting of Chinese actresses as geishas could rouse anti-Japan sentiment and stir up feelings over Japanese wartime actions in China, especially the use of Chinese women as forced sex workers.[21][22]

Japanese responses

On a visit to Tokyo to promote the film, Zhang Ziyi received a mysterious parcel and letter, revealed to have been sent by an elderly Japanese woman who had once worked as a geisha. In her letter, the woman stated that she had been touched by the trailer of the film and expected the movie to bring back fond memories for her and her friends. Inside the parcel were several exquisitely worked antique kimono. Zhang Ziyi was moved to tears by the gesture and sent the woman an invitation to the film's Japanese premiere. She also promised to wear one of the kimono to the event as a sign of her gratitude.[23]

Awards and nominations

Academy Awards[24]

Golden Globe

National Board of Review

  • Won: Best Supporting Actress (Gong Li)

Satellite Awards

  • Won: Outstanding Screenplay, Adapted (Robin Swicord)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Motion Picture, Drama
  • Nominated: Outstanding Director (Rob Marshall)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama (Zhang Ziyi)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Supporting Role, Drama (Gong Li)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Art Direction & Production Design (John Myhre)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Cinematography (Robert Elswit)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
  • Nominated: Outstanding Original Score (John Williams)

BAFTA Awards

  • Won: The Anthony Asquith Award for Achievement in Film Music (John Williams)
  • Won: Cinematography (Dion Beebe)
  • Won: Costume Design (Colleen Atwood)
  • Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Zhang Ziyi)
  • Nominated: Production design
  • Nominated: Make Up and Hair

Screen Actors Guild Awards

  • Nominated: Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role (Zhang Ziyi)

NAACP Image Awards

  • Nominated: Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Zhang Ziyi)

Soundtrack album

Memoirs of a Geisha OST
Soundtrack album by John Williams
Released November 22, 2005
Genre Soundtrack
Length 61:02
Label Sony Classical

The Memoirs of a Geisha official soundtrack featured Yo Yo Ma performing the cello solos, as well as Itzhak Perlman performing the violin solos. The music was composed and conducted by John Williams.

  1. "Sayuri's Theme" – 1:31
  2. "The Journey to the Hanamachi" – 4:06
  3. "Going to School" – 2:42
  4. "Brush on Silk" – 2:31
  5. "Chiyo's Prayer" – 3:36
  6. "Becoming a Geisha" – 4:32
  7. "Finding Satsu " – 3:44
  8. "The Chairman's Waltz " – 2:39
  9. "The Rooftops of the Hanamachi " – 3:49
  10. "The Garden Meeting " – 2:44
  11. "Dr. Crab's Prize " – 2:18
  12. "Destiny's Path " – 3:20
  13. "A New Name... A New Life" – 3:33
  14. "The Fire Scene and the Coming of War" – 6:48
  15. "As the Water..." – 2:01
  16. "Confluence " – 3:42
  17. "A Dream Discarded" – 2:00
  18. "Sayuri's Theme and End Credits" – 5:06



  1. ^ Interview with Spielberg, Stephen J. Dubner, Steven Spielberg Interviews, ISBN 1-57806-113-X
  2. ^ Lyttle, John. "The Eastern Affront: This Depiction of Oppression Is Decorously Polite." New Statesman Jan. 16, 2006: 47.
  3. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha." The Journal (Newcastle, England) Jan. 13, 2006: 20.
  4. ^ "Dazzled by the Tricks of an Exotic Trade." The Evening Standard (London, England) Jan. 12, 2006: 34.
  5. ^ "Critic's Choice; Top Ten Films." The Evening Standard (London, England) Jan. 30, 2006: 40.
  6. ^ "GLAD TO BE GEISHA; Beautifully Shot and Brilliantly Acted, This Is an Oscar Favourite MEMOIRS OF A GEISH A ***** 12A." Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland) Jan. 13, 2006: 46.
  7. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha". The Numbers: Box Office Data. Retrieved February 25, 2007. 
  8. ^ Defiglio, Pam. "Memorable Epic Takes a Beautiful Look Inside a Mysterious World." Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) Dec. 16, 2005: 48.
  9. ^ "'Geisha' Rises to Exotic Best; Faithful Book Adaptation Portrays Rivalry of Women." The Washington Times Dec. 16, 2005: D08.
  10. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved February 25, 2007. 
  11. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)". Metacritic. Retrieved April 15, 2007. 
  12. ^ "Geisha film-makers defend casting". BBC News. December 8, 2005. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  13. ^ "China cancels release of 'Memoirs of a Geisha'". USA Today. February 1, 2006. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  14. ^ "Watanabe defends casting in 'Geisha' -". [dead link]
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Memoirs of a Geisha". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  17. ^ Britannica Online Encyclopaedia/China's Relations with Its Neighbours/Year in Review 2005>
  18. ^ CHINA:'Memoirs of a Geisha' Lost in Political Din
  19. ^ "China bans Memoirs of a Geisha". The Guardian (London). February 1, 2006.,,1699608,00.html. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  20. ^ World History Connected/Vol.1 No.1/Yoshiko Nozaki: "I'm Here Alive": History, Testimony, and the Japanese Controversy over "Comfort Women".
  21. ^ – Yahoo! News
  22. ^ "Lee slates China 'ban' on actress". BBC News. March 20, 2008. 
  23. ^
  24. ^ "The 78th Academy Awards (2006) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 

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