Sawasdee (Thai Airways)
By Lucy Birmingham
Geisha: A Mask Lifted?
This award-winning story with accompanying photographs is a rare peak at the tightly guarded and hidden world of Kyoto geisha. Through the introduction of "Mameichi," a well-known Pontocho geisha and star performer, I was allowed backstage and in the dressing rooms during a series of performances of the bi-annual geisha Kamogawa Odori (Kamo River Dances.)
A piercing flute silenced the audience. A hollow, echoing clap and the curtain jerked upwards. Murmurs of surprise and appreciation greeted the scene — kimonos were dazzling in the bright lights against a set sparse yet rich in color. Then the geisha dancer-actresses began to move in a slow but constant flow of draped arms, porcelain hands, alabaster napes and tilted heads wrapped in heavy, oiled coiffures. Their knees seemed permanently bent as they stepped, no, glided across the stage. The Kamo River Dances had begun and I, like the rest of he audience, was slowly enveloped in a dream world more than a century old.
The words were staccato sounds, not melodic but singsong. I barely understood the dialogue, despite my four years in Japan but the actions were quite clear. Lovers quarreled. Lovers embraced. They pledged to die together and together they did, the spotlight, like a reddened blade, piercing them both and withdrawing, so discreetly, as the last anguished tears soaked their white silk kimonos.
Slowly, the curtain dipped to end the scene, then lifted once more for the grand finale. The stage was a blaze of autumnal reds and golds, with geisha waving and pirouetting to a rhythmic clamoring of bells, drums, flutes and twanged strings. At the sound of a final clap of wooden blocks, the flowing stopped and the dancers bowed behind the falling curtain. The silence lasted only a few moments, even after the house lights came up; our applause came like an afterthought as we stirred ourselves from the dream and moved up the aisles toward the exits.
It had all looked so easy. I admired their ability, their grace. But I was curious. Don't they ever drop a fan or trip over an entangled kimono? Doesn't a knee ever crack or a throat suddenly go dry? They are perfect illusion, living dolls. But there must be more behind those masks. I wanted to know them better, to penetrate the masks, to expose…to reveal the reality behind them.
As a photographer, I had a legitimate reason for learning more and getting closer. But would they let me? A story idea began to form in my head; all I needed was a proper, formal introduction to someone behind the scenes. An introduction was everything, for this was Japan, and this is The Way.
I discussed my plans with a Japanese friend who knew something of the geisha world. Those perfected faces, those impenetrable masks, wouldn't they make a fascinating study? He agreed they might, and to my relief, offered to help. As it happened, he said, he was friends with a certain geisha — one of the stars in the performance I had seen — who might be amused by the idea of being photographed by another woman, and a foreign woman at that.
Mameichi was her name, one of the many she was called. It meant "Number One Bean." We sat, with our mutual friend, at her quiet exclusive little drinking place off the narrow, stone-paved lane that ran the length of Pontocho in downtown Kyoto. As we chatted, I learned she had been born and bred a Pontocho geisha, like her mother. And in all of her 38 years she'd known no other life. I thoughtlessly asked about her father. A sudden look of surprise crossed her face, and in place of an answer, she merely smiled and dropped a few more cubes of ice in our glasses for another round.
Our friend explained that I wanted to photograph her backstage during a performance. I sat there a bit numb, trying to understand the nuances of their conversation, straining to catch an indication of her reaction to the idea. Even after two years in Kyoto, I hadn't yet learned to distinguish the sliding, soft intonations of the Kyoto dialect. Worse, the geisha seemed to speak their own language. I saw that she was hesitating, but finally nodded at me and said, in simple, child-like Japanese, "Well, yes. Come to the stage door on Sunday morning around 11:30. The first show begins at noon." I felt as if I'd just been offered a sweet and rare fruit. Don't think, just bite.
That Sunday, as I walked down Pontocho Lane to Kamogawa Theater under a blue October sky, I felt different. I was now on the inside, I thought. I could smile at the geisha hurrying along that narrow walkway towards the theater, confident in my new-found intimacy.
At the theater, Mameichi brought me up the stairs into the dressing room. Other members of her troupe knelt on the tatami mats before their mirrors, applying makeup, sipping tea or smoking. A few heads bowed in greeting as Mameichi casually introduced me to everyone and explained what I was doing there. Although it was, as far as I know, the very fist time a photographer had been allowed into the dressing room, the response I received was neutral — not cool as I might have expected, but certainly not warm either.
Mameichi drew me aside and explained, again in simple Japanese, that I was not to take any pictures of anyone without asking her first. I agreed heartily, smiling as brightly as I could to disguise how clumsy and fat and overbearing I felt.
I put my camera bag and things in a corner of the room near, but not too near Mameichi's dressing table. Kneeling there uncomfortably, I shot a few frames as quietly as possible, trying to relax and get down to business. Then suddenly several young apprentice geisha, called maiko, entered the dressing room. Each in turn politely greeted the elder geisha, bowing charmingly in their bright kimonos. I desperately wanted to capture all of this on film, but remembered Mameichi's warning.
The dressing room for the maiko was in the basement of the theater; no light, airy rooms for apprentices. They had come upstairs now, to have their costumes and makeup checked in preparation for the first curtain. Befitting her status in the troupe, Mameichi had two maiko to whom she was both elder "sister" as well as teacher, as all senior geisha are. One of them it seemed, had experienced a tough night with a difficult customer, and was now seeking Mameichi's advice.
"You'll learn," Mameichi was saying. "It takes time and experience, but you have to be more patient. Here, let me fix your hair." Her reproachful manner softened as her fine wooden comb slipped through the girl's tightly bound hair. Her advice however was hard, as the girl surely knew; Mameichi had the reputation of being one of the hardest drinkers in Pontocho, despite her small stature and weight. She was also known for weathering the most severe hangovers without complaint.
There were four performances of the Kamo River Dances on that balmy autumn day, each lasting about one and a half hours. I stayed in the dressing room during the first one, getting used to the backstage pace. To my surprise, I found that the dressing room was not exclusively a woman's world, for the elaborate wigs, and most of the costumes are cared for by men. But whether they were women or men, attendants or actresses, stars or apprentices, everyone involved seemed to work together smoothly.
I began to feel somehow that I was a part of it all — and that was my mistake. At one point between performances, I happened to turn my lens toward one of the older geisha. Instantly, and without a word, she shot a steely glance at Mameichi. At the same moment I realized what I had done, and lowered my camera with a helpless bow of apology, but Mameichi was already on her feet, pulling me by the elbow away from the woman. "You are not responsible for what you do," she told me, still speaking simple Japanese for my benefit, but no longer using the child-like tone. "Mameichi is responsible for what you do," she said, adding quietly that it was especially bad to take photos of someone changing a wig. "You do understand, don't you?" she said again in a louder voice. And with an embarrassed smile and apologetic gesture to the older woman she swept out of the room to await her next cue.
During one of the breaks, a beautiful bouquet of violet-colored flowers arrived from one of Mameichi's admirers. She opened the delicate card, then frowned. "Who's this?" she demanded. "I don't know who this man is!" She threw the flowers aside and they rolled up against the wall. Suddenly she was on her knees, picking them up and gently rewrapping the tissue. Rising gracefully, she offered the bouquet with both hands, in the most polite manner, to the dressing room matron. "Oh!" said the matron, bowing repeatedly, "Thank you so much! They're beautiful." It was, I think, Mameichi's way of apologizing for the very large intrusion…me.
The hours passed in a flurry and the film rolls weighed heavily in my bag. At times, the sounds of my camera seemed huge in the quiet flutter of the room. Mameichi gazed endlessly into her mirror between changes with a cigarette constantly dangling from her fingers. Was it a study in narcissism or a professional actress readying herself for the stage? Unconsciously asking myself this question made me ask another: was I getting any further behind the mask? Mameichi seemed to enjoy being photographed, but wasn't this just another aspect of her persona? There were no answers. It was all too subtle, and I couldn't read the signs.
In any case, it was soon coming to an end. Returning to the dressing room after photographing the last performance of the day, I sat down heavily in my corner. Feeling drained, I closed my eyes, and just as I did, I felt someone sit down near me and sensed that it was Mameichi. I opened my eyes, a bit startled, and began to look away. She was leaning ever so slightly and ever so gracefully towards me. Not too close, but just near enough. Suddenly I felt very calmed. All that she was doing was slightly leaning towards me. And yet I felt a great closeness to her, a quietness I'd not felt the whole day.
I was overwhelmed, emotionally. And perhaps to justify this, or balance it, my mind struggled to analyze the feeling. Aaaah, I said to myself, that's the way they do it. Calm the customer. Envelope him in femininity and gentleness. Take his mind off the grinding world beyond the teahouse gate. It was a rare and subtle gesture hidden among the obvious acts of hospitality and entertainment.
This was yet another aspect of this intriguing woman. I had seen the performer. I had seen hints of other things too — her patience as an "elder sister," her bossy prima donna side, her narcissism in front of the lens. But in this odd fragile gesture she revealed to me the professional geisha she was trained to be.
No, I decided later, I have not penetrated the mask. But as time passed and we met upon occasion, I also discovered in her a kind of bittersweet melancholy. Now I have to laugh though, for most bittersweet of all, I came to learn that this too was only a mask.