Bright, chirpy and wholesome is the name of the game for Lady Maiko, a Japanese spin on Pygmalion or My Fair Lady about a country bumpkin with a funny accent who travels to Kyoto in the hopes of becoming a maiko, the apprentice-type step that comes before full on geisha. The film’s identity as a musical early on comes as something of a surprise, and listening to a linguistics professor extol the virtues of Kyoto dialect in song is a bit jarring. But overall Lady Maiko is a pleasant, if oddball, feel-good trifle not that common from Japan. It’s typically polished and well produced, and so it could find a life on the festival circuit as a big glossy gala. Musicals remain a hard sell, however, and broad box office success in any region is a long shot.
In the Shimohachiken district Bansuraku teahouse, in old Kyoto, an impeccably trained geisha, Satoharu (Kusakari Tamiyo, Shall We Dance?), and her apprentice, the city’s aging lone maiko Mameharu (Watanabe Eri, Swing Girls) entertain a regular customer, a knowledgeable veteran of geisha culture, Kitano (veteran Kishibe Ittoku, 13 Assassins). That same night a teenaged girl, Haruko (Kamishiraishi Mone), shows up, imploring the housemother, Chiharu (Fuji Sumiko, Air Doll) to train her in the arts of the maiko. One stilted conversation tells Chiharu all she needs to know: Haruko’s thick regional accent and unrefined speech will never fly in Kyoto and she encourages her to go back to her home in northern Japan.
But not so fast. Henry Higgins, er, rather linguistics professor Kyono (Hasegawa Hiroki, Why Don’t You Play in Hell) makes a friendly wager with Kitano that he can turn Haruko into a class act in sixth months. Intrigued and convinced he can’t lose Kitano accepts the challenge. This all unfolds in the 20-plus minute prologue that sets up the predictable (and long) story about an unpolished girl that becomes a sophisticated lady.
Charming and colorful as Lady Maiko often is, it’s too long to sustain its thin story, even with the elaborate production numbers. If ever a film cried out for a training montage it’s this one. That said, the music is robust and catchy, the costume and production design are impeccable in both appearance and rapt attention to detail (the preparation for Haruko’s debut is fascinating in its process) and relative newcomer Kamishiraishi is sweet and relatable. Watching her trip over her kimono and dealing with leg cramps after sitting like a “proper” maiko for so long is conventional but amusing nonetheless.
But there’s not much that’s challenging in the film, and very little in the way of dramatic conflict. The biggest hurdle is Kyono’s assistant Shuhei warning the naive Haruko that the professor is helping her out for his own gain, and that she should be careful about her emotions with regards to him. The rest of the so-called drama is equally rote: Will Haruko master the intricate dances? Will she get a handle on the Kyoto sound? Will her innocence and sincerity win over the hearts of the jaded Bansuraku regulars? Will the pupil fall in love with the tutor? The point of Lady Maiko isn’t whether any of these things are going to happen—at the fundamental level it’s the familiar story of a small town girl (or boy) in the big city with big dreams, Showgirls, but less bad—the point is the journey. Writer-director Suo Masayuki brings the same light, optimistic touch to bear as he did with his best known films, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t and Shall We Dance?, which similarly revolved around gently non-conformist characters doing (and enjoying) what they shouldn’t in rigid Japan. When Haruko officially transforms into the maiko Koharu and the city breaks out into song (again), only the stoniest in the audience could remain unmoved by the old-fashioned “niceness” of it all.
Production company: Altamira Pictures
Cast: Kamishiraishi Mone, Hasegawa Hiroki, Watanabe Eri, Fuji Sumiko, Kusakari Tamiyo, Naoto Takenaka, Hamada Gaku
Director: Suo Masayuki
Screenwriter: Suo Masayuki
Producer: Tsuchiya Ken, Tsuchimoto Takao, Horikawa Shintaro
Director of photography: Terada Rokuro
Production designer: Isoda Norihiro
Editor: Kikuchi Junichi
Music: Suo Yoshikazu
Sales: Pony Canyon
No rating, 134 minutes