Geisha. Easily one of the most recognizable images of Japan familiar even to the average American who can't tell Tokyo from Kyoto. They've shown up in Hollywood from John Wayne's time to our own, and there's hardly a travel guide from which they're absent. And yet for all that (or because of that, I should say), these women are rather poorly understood--the realities of their lives warped and distorted by romanticized visions, exotic fantasies, sentimentalized condescension, and stern moralizing, not to mention plain old misinformation. The complex web of cultural politics and stereotypes being what they are, this situation probably isn't going to vanish overnight, but in terms of gradual amelioration there are probably few reality checks more enjoyable than Nagai Kafu's classic novel "Udekurabe" of 1918, here translated into English as "Geisha in Rivalry" and reissued in a handy commuting-friendly paperback by good old Tuttle.
Granted, in this novel we are viewing the social world of Geisha through a decidedly male gaze. But this is a male gaze with keen powers of perception. Nagai Kafu was infinitely curious about the demi-monde and so is able to depict the complicated dynamics of the Geisha's social world with convincing authenticity. Kafu indeed seems to delight in the endless details and complications of this shady world, delineating it from a number of perspectives (different types of Geisha and their different patrons along with the owners and operators of Geisha houses and the novelists, actors, and mooching bums loosely associated with the floating world). He is at once cheerfully enthusiastic about the glamorous aspects of their lives while sympathetically realistic about the sordid aspects, and it is this balanced binocular vision which allows him to depict the Geisha in the novel as memorably three-dimensional characters with hopes, dreams, challenges, frustrations, triumphs, heartbreaks, alliances, rivalries, and of course a very unhealthy dose of nasty backbiting and oneupswomanship (as per the title). For all that it has going on, though, all of it is held together by the core storyline, a fairly simple tale of a good-heartedly ambitious Geisha by the name of Komayo; the plot meanders along at just the right pace as she navigates the stormy seas of romance and the tricky shoals of her profession, making a few friends and a lot of enemies along the way. Will she hit bottom or sail on to the horizon? You'll just have to read and see.
P.S. For anyone interested in comparing translations, there's a new one of "Udekurabe" coming out fairly soon in August 2007 (Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale (Japanese Studies Series)).