Hot on the heels of Mineko Iwasaki’s Geisha (p. 1198) comes this biography of a once-renowned but now-forgotten Japanese courtesan, dancer, and actress.
It comes, however, with no clear argument for why modern readers should especially care. Downer (The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family, 1995, etc.) offers a by-the-numbers account of the life of Sadayakko, whose years matched those of Japan’s growth from feudal backwater to emergent and then defeated world power. About those profound social changes Downer has almost nothing to say, except to volunteer somewhat breathlessly that the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships occasioned the arrival in the West of the “myth of the exotic geisha. . . . The very word carried an erotic frisson. It conjured up a submissive almond-eyed Oriental maiden, the embodiment of all the seductive femininity and sexual freedom of some fanciful exotic East dreamed up in the fevered imaginations of repressed, frustrated Westerners.” In that spirit, the author concentrates on Sadayakko’s role in opening the hitherto all-male Japanese stage to women, as well as her achievement in bringing Japanese theater to a Western audience, becoming the Asian equivalent of a Sarah Bernhardt—or, as Downer has it, “more like Bernhardt combined with Anna Pavlova, a glorious dancer as well as an actress.” There isn’t much context here, so readers without grounding in that theater will have to imagine what all the fuss was about. Neither is there much insight into Sadayakko’s life, whose contours are rendered in invented dialogue of the Madame Butterfly school: “ ‘My name is Momosuké Iwasaki,’ the young man told her politely. ‘I am a humble student at Keiyo University.’ ‘I am Ko-yakko of the House of Hamada in the geisha town of Yoshicho,’ she replied, blushing prettily as she bowed in return.” And so on through apogee and eclipse, with precious little frisson to be had.
A lukewarm portrait of a red-hot international star of a century past.