Hirokazu Kore-eda infuses the world of Japanese geisha with his signature gentle humanism The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko Househis first drama series for Netflix, launching worldwide this week.
Based on a best-selling manga by Aiko Koyama, the nine-episode series is set in Kyoto’s traditional Geiko district and depicts the inner sanctum of aspiring Maiko courtesans. The story follows two young girls, Kiyo (Mori Nana) and Sumire (Natsuki Deguchi) who move to Kyoto from rural Aomori with the dream of becoming a geisha. But while Sumire is immediately identified as a natural in the traditional arts of the geisha – dance, elaborate costumes and delicate music making – Kiyo proves to be an uneasy match. Instead, she finds her place as Makanai, the traditional cook who prepares the meals in the yakata house where all the geiko live together.
Kore-eda, who won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2018 with his family drama Shoplifters, acts as producer, showrunner and co-writer of the show. He also directs some episodes, while overseeing a trio of aspiring Japanese protégés – Megumi Tsuno, Hiroshi Okuyama and Takuma Sato – directing additional individual episodes. Kore-eda has been outspoken about his desire to use his influence in the industry to create opportunities for a new generation of Japanese film talent. The series is produced by Japanese multi-talent Genki Kawamura (confessions, your name).
“Kore-eda brings to The Makanai a bit of the same tenderness and compassion that movies are made of Broker and Shoplifters so loved,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer in her review published Thursday, calling the series “as cozy and comforting as a home-cooked meal.”
THR connected with Kore-eda to discuss the inspirations behind his first Netflix project, as well as some thornier questions about the proper place of the geisha tradition in contemporary Japanese life.
What sparked your interest in telling this story?
Well, I was interested because this was a world I didn’t know. In movies, I had seen this world by Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Naruse, but I realized I had no idea how Geiko and Maiko live their lives these days. So I was very curious to look into this world. And when I began my research, I discovered that the shape of their lives is indeed very different from what most of us experience. Most of us have lost touch with and forgotten about so many of these customs. The way they live according to the seasons and all the rituals they observe – these traditions are ongoing. Today it’s a very small community and world, so the connections they have in it are very intense. I thought thinking about this different, older lifestyle might provide some insight into how the rest of us live today. And it’s a world I knew I’d love to photograph.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your research process was like? What did you have to do to make sure all the details of their traditions and lifestyle were correct?
Well, the original manga is clearly fiction. In real life, there are no teenagers working in that environment like Makanai. But when I was doing my research, I went to one of those Yakata houses where all the women live as a small community and spent time with their Makanai. The person I interviewed was a woman in her seventies. She wasn’t actually an in-house Makanai; she had a separate house, where she lived and did all her cooking. But I actually followed her for a whole day, observing what she did and how she lived her life. And then for the Yakata houses, I actually couldn’t visit directly because they have a very strict rule of not allowing outsiders. But there are people called otokoshi whose job it is to dress the Maiko in their kimono; they are the only outsiders allowed to enter the Yakata houses. So through the eyes of the makanai and otokoshi I was able to do some research and get some impressions. I also visited the kimono houses in the area and researched the ozashiki, the places where the Geiko and Maiko display their art to their audiences. And finally I also did interviews with some Maiko and geishas themselves.
From what I understand, there is often a lot of international misunderstanding about Japanese geisha and the historical reality of the tradition. And I believe that even in Japan there is debate about how strong geisha were historically and how the tradition should be viewed in relation to modern feminist ideals. You tell a very sweet and innocent story with this series, but what you just said about there being no 16 year olds working as Makanai in today’s geisha houses made me wonder what your take is on some of these more complicated questions . The story follows two 16-year-old girls who leave high school to work in this world. And while it’s a world of exquisite, highly developed art forms, it also comes down to young women hosting and serving drinks to much older men. While working on the show, did you develop a vision about the proper place of this tradition in contemporary Japanese society?
Have you seen all episodes?
I’ve seen five so far.
Well, I am aware of the fact that people have opinions on opposing sides of this issue, and not just from my experience working on this drama. Personally, I feel that this tradition is probably in need of some reformation, and some people in this world have told me that it is being worked on to do just that. But as you mentioned, it is also true that there are many misunderstandings about geisha and Maiko. When I interviewed one of the Okami-sans, the former housewives, she told me that many of the foreigners who visit them have seen Memoirs of a Geisha and that their understanding of geisha has been completely shaped by that film. So they assume that all the girls were sold to the house because of a bad upbringing, or that they are there out of desperation. And my own knowledge of Geisha was actually shaped by Mizoguchi, who also told very sad stories in his day.
But in real life, when I did my research and went to the Hanamachi (a district where Geishas live and work), the people I met there were very excited about this tradition and it was something they were actively seeking. They want to preserve this culture and they want it to be accepted, and they are very serious about continuing to reform it. All the houses I interacted with only accepted Maiko if they had the explicit support of their parents. It really seemed to me that they were taking solid actions and I felt their passion for preserving their tradition and their art form. Personally, I feel like I’d like to root for them. It’s clearly not perfect. But we creators in the entertainment industry have also been way overdue in implementing our reforms. So I’d like to think that we could continue to work together in that sense.
But when I was developing the show, I thought it would be very irresponsible to introduce this world as a place of pure, dreamlike wonder. So I also incorporated some elements into the show that didn’t exist in the original story of the manga – as a minor critique. That’s why I asked you how much of the show you’d seen. For example, I included the character of the daughter who has a strong critical opinion of the maiko manners. And I also added Sumire’s father, who is strongly against her wanting to be a maiko. And then I also had the sequence where the Okami-san shares her opinion in response. So I’ve added these elements to introduce some of the questions you raise, but ultimately I’ve tried to leave it to the viewer to make their own judgement.
What were your visual ambitions for the show, given that there’s such an automatic expectation of rarefied beauty around geisha in Kyoto? The show has such a beautiful natural glow throughout.
Well, I thought of the streets of Kyoto and the beauty of kimono – and of course I wanted to light the food so that it looks delicious. Those were some of the obvious things I thought about. But what I cared about most was how the Yakata, or geisha house, was built. We designed to have three floors. The first floor is the common area; the second floor has the bedrooms; and then the third floor is Kiyo’s attic. And we also added an upper washroom as a fourth tier. We built all this as a set in the studio. In each of these four different areas, the women show different faces. For example, on the first floor you have the Okasan, the mother, and next to it you have the adjoining bar, with customers. So this level is a public space and they put their public faces there. There is a common room on the second floor, so they have their common life among themselves in this room. And then we always find Kiyo on the third floor all alone. The outdoor washroom, which is right next door next door, is a space they go to when dealing with the issues of growing up or not being a mature adult yet. It’s kind of a transitional space. Through the dialogue that takes place in these four spaces, I wanted to clearly show the differences in the sky and solidify these nuances. If I could pull that off, I felt like the characters of the story would be much more dimensional and rich.