This is a book of photographs with a story wrapped around it. Or is it a story beautifully illustrated with color photos? Or both?
Japanese-Mexican photographer Naoyuki Ogino was fortunate to be able to collaborate with the author, whose anonymity is protected by her pseudonym, which is also her nickname,
we are told, a word meaning "peach." His skill is a counterpoint to her journey as we follow her from her training (maiko) and initiation into the world of geisha (geiko) in the city of Kyoto, Japan.
What draws a girl to want to live the lonely, strictly disciplined life of what in the West is known as a "geisha" will remain a mystery after you finish this book. We know that Komomo, as a child, loved to wear kimono, and to experience herself as an old-fashioned female. The
kimono (the word is both singular and plural) she donned as a child and teenager were from her grandmother. Modern Japanese women for the most part have no interest in donning themselves in the extremely confining garb, which requires a helper to put on correctly. But for some reason, Komomo was enchanted by the ancient clothing with its strictly layered folds.
She took on the discipline required for maiko with trepidation, not believing that she could succeed to the end. Her initial shyness and innocence are captured skillfully by the camera of Ogino, who was invited to shadow her each step of the way. It was a risk that paid off. She gained her cherished dream of life as geiko, in her own apartment but living still somewhat communally with her "sister" geishas, while he created a richly colorful book in which her memories and his pictures tell a strange but charming story.
One of the interesting points to me about the book is that Komomo states that she only needs to look at the clothing she wears in a photo to know exactly when and where it was taken. That's because each costume, each hairstyle or wig and the accompanying ritualized face paint, are bound to particular rituals at particular places. You can surmise that nothing in the existence of maiko or geiko is spontaneous or unprescribed.
Komomo is at pains to make her reader understand that geiko is not prostitution - that is constitutes a sort of therapeutic healing in which beautifully costumed, talented women perform highly structured rituals (including serving tea and food, dancing, singing, smiling and giving utmost attention to the customer) which serve to make the paying male participant feel better. It would seem to be like prostitution - without the sex act. One aspect which separates it from "ordinary" prostitution is that older women are as valuable in the art of geiko as the younger ones. In fact, their wisdom and wit are greatly prized. The life requires that a girl leave her family and, unlike other career choices, it will keep her in isolation from the outside world until she dies. But at least, she need not fear that she will be rejected when she is no longer fresh-faced: since everyone wears wigs and heavy make-up, it can be hard to tell who is young and who is not.
Despite the lush photography and Komomo's honest appraisal of herself and her job and its accompanying lifestyle, I can't help but feel sad for her. She is a pretty, sweet-faced child in the beginning of the book, but by the end you can see that she has become rigid, like a statue, her face a perpetual mask, always sleeping on a hard pillow, eating only tiny quantities, visiting only certain parts of town, associating only with certain people - like the old metaphor, a bird in a gilded cage.