Pygmalion-esque by nature, Lady Maiko is inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s original play which debuted in 1913. This cinematic interpretation of My Fair Lady is inspired, yet sticks rather closely to the premise of provincial country bumpkin being coached by a professor to speak more eloquently.
The film’s opening scene pulls you into the drama straight away. We see Haruko (Mone Kamishiraishi) who is a slip of a thing, arriving under the cover of darkness in Kyoto clutching a suitcase and not much else. She is following her dreams of becoming a Kyoto geisha, and not having a formal introduction into the sisterhood, or someone to vouch for her, Haruko is quickly shown the door to return home.
She is an outsider, but she doesn’t care. Haruko perseveres, and after winning over the lady of the house Satoharu (Tamiyo Kusakari), our plucky heroine soon embarks on a journey to change herself into a sophisticated, elegant lady in waiting. Hiroki Hasegawa’s professor is a nuanced delight. It is this character which takes the most liberties with subtle intonations that is a refreshing break from the usual brashness of the Pygmalion professor.
It is rare that you see a Japanese musical and this is admittedly, my first one. I found it to be a melodious mélange of comedy and drama, yet it sometimes feels as if it is being performed on a theatre setting. This isn’t a bad thing, it does remind you on a few occasions of the origins of the film being a theatrical production.
The film gathers pace in the latter part, where we see greater interaction of other tertiary characters. Tomio Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) elicits bellyful laughs galore, and the compact cast make this one visual treat. The grand finale is tender, which is where we learn Haruko’s real reason for rocking up on that cold dark night months ago.
Universal themes of love, hope and belonging abound in Lady Maiko. It’s a thought-provoking film that will have you Googling the actors, to see what else they have appeared in. The film itself is created with tenderness and charm in the very capable hands of Masayuki Suo, no stranger to the film scene. He is best known for Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t and Shall We Dance? both clinching him the Director of the Year at the Japan Academy Awards in 1992 and 1996 respectively.
I loved watching Lady Maiko. Mone Kamishiraishi shines as Haruko, and it’s difficult not be held captive by her wide-eyed innocence, and fragility that she brings to the role. Haruko losing her voice due to stress is touching, comic and slowly, subtly, this act informs the voyeur of the many complexities of being a geisha. This film will delight, educate, and it may even inspire you to make like Haruko, trek to Kyoto and become a geisha.
The Japan Film Foundation is currently touring the UK. For details where you can view the Japanese films being showcased, go to www.jpf-film.org.uk/films/lady-maiko now.