"Memoirs of a Geisha" Set Report
by Bluenose Kitty
Monday 12/13 and Tuesday 12/14:
In one of the larger sound stages on the Sony Pictures Lot a Sumo theatre was constructed; five rows of audience boxes in a square-shaped hall, each lined in black wood and tatami mats. The stage was canopied under an elegant pagoda roof and the floor was lined with sand and wet salt. Six sumo performers were cast as fighters for the scene, as well as a professional announcer flown in from Japan, photographers who sported vintage cameras, and assorted VIPs who lined the lip of the stage. Approximately five hundred extras were costumed in 1930s kimonos, business suits and military uniforms and were seated in the boxes surrounding the stage. Smoke was pumped into the sound stage to enhance the lighting and the sweaty, gamey atmosphere of the sumo match. Director Rob Marshall appeared early morning and directed the wrestlers through their matches; the announcer would introduce the contestants, the crowd was directed to cheer, the contestants would then circle each other in a declaration that the match was on, and they would then throw salt onto the sanded floor in anticipation of the battle. Many cheers emanated from the extras and the photographers flashed their cameras at the match. One such match ended with a wrestler hurled into the crowd of photographers, which scattered the photographers and elicited an even greater series of shouts from the audience.
Seated in a box two rows up from the stage were Ken Watanabe and Koju Yakusho. Elegantly costumed in 1930s business suits the two men watched with intensity as the sumo games unfolded. Yakusho sported facial scars on the right side of his face as his character (Nobu) suffered burns in an accident some years before the events of the story (as described in Arthur Golden's book). From the edge of the stairs, Zhang Ziyi (Sayuri) stood wearing a powder-blue kimono, her hair elegantly bound into the circular style of an apprentice geisha. Next to her stood Michelle Yeoh as her mentor Mameha. Costumed in a beautiful amber-orange kimono, Yeoh lead Zhang into the row where the gentlemen sat and the two geisha joined them in the box. Zhang's character Sayuri engaged Yakusho's character as she asked for an explanation from him of the game (his character was an avid fan of sumo). At a particularly dramatic moment of the game Yakusho stands and shouts at the wrestlers. Marshall ordered several takes of the scene and the extras were instructed to react quietly but with big motions as they needed to record the principals' dialogue during the scene.
At the opposite side of the theatre, a figure emerged at the top of the stairs. Sheathed in a blood-red kimono, an angry gold dragon emblazoned into the hem, and tied in a sinister black obi, the figure walked down into the steps into the seating area and took a box by the edge, her piercing eyes fixed on the activity at the opposite side of the theatre. A slight gasp emanated from some of the extras when she appeared like a modern-day Dietrich from the hazy background. Gong Li, as the treacherous Hatsumomo, walked down the steps and slinked into her seat followed by her companion Korin (played by Eugenia Yuan, daughter of "Crouching Tiger" villainess Cheng Pei-Pei). Li's stunning features were accentuated by the pale geisha makeup and red lips; beautiful but every inch the femme fatale. She observed the other characters with a pair of opera glasses, whispered something to her companion, then made a cross to the other side of the stadium, her features frozen into an elegant mask of cunning as she hatched her plan to undo her enemy Sayuri's ascent as a prominent geisha of Kyoto.
Filming of this scene took place over two days as Marshall ordered coverage of the dialogue, the sumo matches, and the characters' POV as they observed each other from opposite sides of the theatre. The amount of detail in each shot and the sheer number of extras (tea runners, photographers, military, audience) which required choreography made for an intricate and complex shoot but Marshall handled the different elements with aplomb, frequently making jokes and complimenting the background extras for their patience (many had arrived at the studio at four a.m. for what became a sixteen-hour shoot). The scene was reminiscent of the opera scenes from "Dangerous Liasons" as the characters kept tabs on each other from different corners of the huge theatre and put into motion their respective plots and schemes.
On late Tuesday, December 14th, the company wrapped the Sumo scene which was the last major scene to be shot in Los Angeles. From here the crew and cast will decamp to Sacramento, California and eventually to Japan for the remainder of the shoot.