Madame Sadayakko was Japan's first actress and was feted as the Bernhardt and the Terry of her day. Handed over as a child to be trained as a geisha, she later became the wife of an ambitious actor. On their way to suc-cess the couple spent months at sea in typhoons, almost starved to death as begging travellers in the US and saw members of their company die tragically. Sadayakko's ability to charm an audience saved the company on every occasion and, at a time when Japanese women did not go on the stage, the male actors with whom she performed were dependent on her talents.
Lesley Downer presents us with memories of the actress from newspapers, from Sadayakko herself and her husband, Momosuke, and from friends and relatives. Strangely, it is hard ever to feel close to her. Though her performances made a great impression on those who saw them, the language of the critics is so breathless that it is difficult to gain a sense of the substance of her talents. Much of the time, they are simply captivated by her oriental charm. She "resembles the loveliest ivory bas relief, radiant in soft brocades and silks. And how this geisha dances! Flexible as a little willow wand . . . No wonder the geisha bewitches all travellers in the Flowery Kingdom."
Downer stresses that Sadayakko was not the "little wife", but an independent woman with her own career. But her language tends to reinforce the stereotype. "She was on the cusp of adulthood, an enchanting combination of innocent child and coquette, with a streak of barely concealed wildness lurking just beneath the surface."
Sadayakko "chirrups" and "coos". She "widens her big eyes suggestively" and "blushes prettily". For a grown woman, she's a bit irritating. She may have been an important role model for Japanese women, but her girlishness is reminiscent of Yum-Yum in The Mikado. In her own interviews with newspapers of the time, Sadayakko revealed little. Did she enjoy being a star? Or was she simply being a good wife by performing to please her husband? Her answers are inconsistent and we can only guess.
Where this book succeeds is in how it documents the trials of a troupe of Japanese actors trying to carry their art to the west at the turn of the 20th century. Interest in Japan was high, but only when it fitted western preconceptions. Momosuke was clever and understood, that in order to capture the western audience, the Japanese actors had to recreate their plays according to the particular country in which they found themselves. In France, the actors were requested to add scenes of hara-kiri to their play, so many in fact that the stage became a bloodbath as characters killed themselves in "the Japanese manner". Sadayakko's performances were rapturously praised, but most of the time her words made little sense in Japanese because the emphasis was all on spectacle. The more ridiculous it would seem to a Japanese audience, the more Japanese it was to a western one. Paradoxically, only by westernising the performances could they prove themselves sufficiently Japanese for the west. This is interesting because from The Mikado to Madame Butterfly to our current fascination with books about geisha, the west has liked to keep its picture of Japan somewhere in the cherry blossom-framed land of Titipu.
Sadayakko and Momosuke eventually returned to their homeland. But as a former geisha, and one married to the "riverbed beggar" Momosuke, Sadayakko could never have respectability. She may have been the Sarah Bernhardt of Japan, but that meant little to most of her own people. Still, she founded a successful school for the training of actresses and, with Momosuke, brought the influences of American and European theatre back to Japan.
Downer tells a fascinating story, but I am not sure it is the story of the book's title. Indeed, the irrepressible Momosuke with his outrageous risk-taking and genuine passion for theatre often emerges as the more complex character. The very word "geisha" may still attract the western eye today as it did 100 years ago but, as this book shows in the detailing of the richness of the lives of the supporting actors, there are always other stories to be told.
Susanna Jones's second novel, Water Lily (Picador), has just been published