Warning – major spoilers ahead! Even worse – lots of plot retell! Also please collapse the ‘contents’ menu – those are just quotes.
Memoirs of a Geisha is my biggest guilty pleasure. Despite the novel’s sometimes major historical unaccuracies and blatant over-sexualization to try and appeal a Western audience, Arthur Golden’s breach of an anonymity contract he made with the inspiring woman of the novel, and its incredibly annoying main character, Memoirs of a Geisha is great for a foreigner like myself to read, since it does do quite a good job of immersing the reader into Japan prior to the second world war. The novel is one of my favourites, and one of the most interesting things about it is the cast of characters that we are introduced to. Some are completely one-dimensional: Hatsumomo who is entirely cruel, or Mother who has no personality at all besides being stingy.
But I suppose that this makes quite a bit of sense realistically, since the world of a geisha is one in which only the carefully manicured outward appearance is ever shown to another, and this applies to the protagonist, Sayuri, to quite a large extent. Considering the main themes of the novel relate to destiny and independence, Sayuri is especially a horrible example to look at for most of the novel. Even though we get to read Sayuri’s inside thoughts, she very rarely reveals them to anyone, and follows the current of life like a stream, thinking that there is little that she can do to change the direction of her life at all.
I wish I could believe life really is something more than a stream that carries us along, belly-up.
This quote from Sayuri exemplifies this belief incredibly well, and this relates mostly to her pursuit for the man of her dreams: who is a chairman of a large company. Unfortunately, Sayuri is instead tasked by those around her to court the Chairman’s business partner: the amputee and burn victim Toshikazu Nobu, who is known for his upfront and often harsh nature. Everything about the Chairman is opposed by Nobu. When Sayuri fell for the Chairman due to his gentle kindness, Nobu is more likely to send a geisha home crying more than anything.
When analyzing all the characters in the novel, it becomes apparent that everyone seems one-dimensional from the face that they show the world. Even the Chairman is shown to have nothing but kindess until the later stages of the novel. Everyone also seems to believe very strongly in fate, often checking their almanacs and listening to fortune tellers before they do anything in life. Sayuri firmly believes that she has essentially no control over her own life, and that there is no point to her trying to fight the stream of water that carries them all – and every character shares this belief to a large degree.
Everyone except for Nobu: the most forgotten and underappreciated character that I have come across in any form of literature.
When we analyze the way the Nobu is spoken about in the novel, a very important distinction is made between him and all other men who hold any place in Sayuri’s life. Besides the Chairman and other high-ranking men like Dr. Crab or the Baron, even men who rank low in society like Sayuri’s dressers are always referred to as “Mr. Bekku” and “Mr. Itchoda”. Nobu is the president of the company that he and the Chairman both run, which actually gives him a greater term of respect to the eyes of others. And yet, Nobu is always referred to by nothing other than his first name, which shows his honest and open nature as well as the frankness within the bond that he and Sayuri eventually develop.
Another important insight comes from Nobu’s appearance – as he lost his arm and was burned badly during the war. You can imagine he would by no means be conventionally attractive to most people, and this is referenced by what people often say about him.
It’s hard to describe the way he looked, and probably it would be cruel for me even to try. I’ll just repeat what I overheard another geisha say about him once: “Every time I look at his face, I think of a sweet potato that has blistered in the fire.”
This is once again directly opposed by the fact the Chairman is always described as being dignified and handsome by Sayuri, whereas she can barely make herself look at Nobu. It seemed a horrific twist of fate that Sayuri was instructed specifically to attract Nobu enough to become his mistress, when she didn’t want anything but the opposite. Yet she doesn’t rebel at all and simply goes along with this instead of following her true desires. Time and time again, Sayuri attributes her life to fate and not the choices she could’ve made.
You may recall the claim I made earlier about essentially all of the characters in the novel being one-dimensional to a large extent and following ideals that Western readers might find strange: for example the fact that the Chairman is married and yet it is totally normal for him to seek out a mistress purely for sexual purposes. But Nobu breaks this mold in every way possible. He suffered his injuries as a result of trying to save an officer during a bombing, and could’ve died a war hero. Instead, he took control over his life and worked hard to help his and the Chairman’s business grow. The Chairman even explains on many occasions how critical Nobu is to the success of him company, Iwamura Electric, and how Nobu’s friendship and fierce loyalty is incredibly valuable. And when Sayuri breaks this trust and friendship the first time, it sheds a light on Nobu’s magnificence.
Although initially being described as a character who is rude and condescending, Nobu shows true kindness to Sayuri – a sort of kindness that is really not paralleled by anyone else. Even the Chairman views Sayuri mainly as a sexual plaything, whereas Nobu calls these ideas “antique” and instead values her for her intelligence, wit, humour, and conversational skills. When Sayuri eventually becomes the mistress of a military man who Nobu doesn’t approve of, he becomes angry with her and avoids her company for a while until she finds him on the street and compells him to talk to her. He explains how the man who has become her danna, or patron, is beneath her and cannot provide her what she deserves. She initially denies this, but finally admits to her friend Nobu that he is partly true, to which Nobu replies that he isn’t angry with her because she is with a man other than him. He simply wishes she would hold more influence over her own life instead of allowing others to make decisions regarding her whole existance. In this way, not only is Nobu a man of friendship and dimension, but also one of principles. He expects others to be self-accountable and try their best to change their lives for the better.
Yet, Nobu’s expectations are not inherently unrealistic at all, since he understood when Sayuri sold her virginity (historically inaccurate since geisha never did this) to another man simply for financial gain. But he expected her to have more say into who would be her danna because she was older now and held the most important position in her okiya, or geisha residence. He ridicules Sayuri’s thought that her life is like a stream of water that she can never control.
“All right, if it’s a stream, you’re still free to be in this part of it or that part, aren’t you? The water will divide again and again. If you bump, and tussle, and fight, and make use of whatever advantages you might have…”
After this, he says he wouldn’t be asking for her entertainment at the teahouse any longer.
“I’m a very easy man to understand, Sayuri,” he said. “I don’t like things held up before me that I cannot have.” Before I had a chance to reply, he stepped into the teahouse and rolled the door shut behind him.
And that could’ve been the end of Sayuri’s relationship with Nobu. After all, he did say that he wouldn’t be requesting her presence anymore. His actions towards her seemed unforgiving and he was definitely being quite harsh with her.
But if it seems like I’m trashing Sayuri quite a lot, I need to step back for a second. Nobu is a man who has principles because he controls his own life. He has standards, and expects Sayuri to have standards as well. Yet, she doesn’t have this sense of absolute freedom to choose what she wants because geisha don’t have free will. They need to squash every single sigh or raised finger that might cause their perfect exterior to crumble, and at the end of they day, their chief consideration is what will make them the most money. So in many ways, you can’t really blame Sayuri for not speaking out, since she was never used to doing so before, and her entire life has been dictated for her in the past, with the constant threat of failure and disownment if she steps out of line.
But as the political climate of Japan changes due to the second world war’s ending, the geisha districs are ordered to close, and Sayuri finds herself looking for a safe haven where she can live to protect herself from working in a factory where bombs rain frequently. No man, not even her danna is able to help her, and Nobu hasn’t spoken to her since his anger got the better of him four years ago. And yet, when Sayuri is called to the very teahouse where Nobu said he would never ask for her, she is led into a private room with none other than the man himself sat on the futon.
He saves Sayuri the choice of having to go to the factory and inhaling coal dust or making her living as a prostitute. He arranges for her to go live in a small town with a friend of his, effectively saving her. And he establishes his friendship with Sayuri once more, which allows the reader to recognize that Nobu has moved on from his anger with Sayuri.
“I don’t know when we will see each other again or what the world will be like when we do. We may both have seen many horrible things. But I will think of you every time I need to be reminded that there is beauty and goodness in the world.”
As the bombs raged on and spared Sayuri every time, she grew more and more in his debt. Eventually though, the war came to an end, and Japan began to emerge as a strengthening nation, and Nobu once returned to bid her to come and entertain him at that very same teahouse.
This is essentially the redeeming arc of Nobu to readers who believe he was wrong in his outrage to Sayuri. And if we take this opinion, the story does frame him as being wrong for expecting Sayuri to have so much control over her life.
But now, Nobu wants to become Sayuri’s danna, and vocalizes this intention to Sayuri. Obviously, Sayuri is completely against this, as after being Nobu’s mistress, the Chairman would never jeopardize his relationship with his business partner over a woman. Sayuri realizes that for her to avoid becoming Nobu’s mistress, she needs to take control of her own life for the first time instead of allowing things to unfold the way they are.
So, she stages a dramatic scene where she gets caught sleeping with a particular finance minister who Nobu holds no regard for at all, having said so earlier when the Minister inquired about possibly spending just one night with Sayuri.
“Would you give yourself to the Minister, no matter who asked it of you? If you’re a woman who would do such a thing, I want you to leave this room right now, and never speak to me again!”
Although at the time, Sayuri insisted she wouldn’t do such a thing, this caused her to realize later that if she wanted Nobu out of her life, she just needed to sleep with the Minister.
But she would never do that right, since Nobu was the only person who ever showed her true kindness and personal regard, and how he saved her life during the war.
But of course, Sayuri did indeed sleep with the minister, and Nobu was furious when it got around to him. He never spoke to her again.
Eventually, this led to Sayuri getting with the Chairman and possibly having his son.
But what about Nobu? His kindness was just thrown away like that? Guess so.
What’s most interesting though, is that Nobu was someone who commanded others to show self-determination, and Sayuri needed to rid himself of her in order to live her own life. It’s tragically poetic how the disabled and injured man represented the most bold future – and yet Sayuri was never able to turn and look at that future. No love for Nobu – a man who seemed like the hero from my Western perspective. I still don’t think he got the recognition or respect he deserves.
I think Nobu was rightfully angry when Sayuri slept with the Minister.
But I’d like to think that maybe if he knew why she did it, he’d be just a little proud of her.
Although this was going to be the end of the piece, I decided to share some of my favourite quotes from Nobu, as he is a completely hilarious badass at times.
“All right, you want two stories, I’ll tell you two stories,” he said. “Here’s the first one. I’ve got a little white dog, named Kubo. One night I came home, and Kubo’s fur was completely blue. The next day it happened again,” he went on tentatively, “only this time Kubo’s fur was bright red. Here’s my second story. Last week I went to the office so early in the morning that my secretary hadn’t yet arrived. All right, which is the true one?”
Of course, we all chose the secretary, except for Pumpkin, who was made to drink a penalty glass of sake.
When I was done, he stood looking at me a long while. I thought he was about to say he found me beautiful—for this was the sort of comment he sometimes made after gazing at me for no reason.
“My goodness, Sayuri, you do look like a peasant!”
“You go around consulting almanacs, saying, ‘Oh, I can’t walk toward the east today, because my horoscope says it’s unlucky!’ But then when it’s a matter of something affecting your entire lives, you simply look the other way.”
“In my case, even when I have nothing more than—I don’t know—a chewed-up peach pit, or something of the sort, I won’t let it go to waste. When it’s time to throw it out, I’ll make good and certain to throw it at somebody I don’t like!”
“Every man has his destiny. But who needs to go to a fortune-teller to find it? Do I go to a chef to find out if I’m hungry?” Nobu said.