In 1929 Japan, nine-year-old Chiyo Sakamoto and her older sister Satsu Sakamoto are sold by their parents to Mr. Tanaka, who in turn, sells them to the Nitta Okiya. Chiyo is accepted, while her sister Satsu is sold to a brothel in the next hanamachi. Chiyo meets Auntie, Mrs. Nitta, or "Mother," the mistress of the okiya; Pumpkin, a girl about her own age in training to be a geisha; and the only resident geisha, the beautiful but very cruel Hatsumomo. Chiyo has the potential to become a great geisha, especially because of her unusual, beautiful blue-grey eyes. But because Hatsumomo cannot tolerate rivals, she abuses Chiyo, forcing her to destroy a kimono (by putting ink on it) which belongs to Hatsumomo's bitter rival, the beautiful, kind but yet sneaky opponent Mameha.
After Chiyo is beaten for ruining the kimono, Hatsumomo tells her where her sister has been living. Chiyo sneaks out of the okiya and goes to Satsu's brothel and they plot to run away together the next day. On her way back into the okiya sexy clubwear
, Chiyo notices the door to the storage shed is open. She pushes the door open and reveals Hatsumomo and her boyfriend having sex on the floor. Since it is forbidden for geisha to have lovers, Hatsumomo knows she will be in trouble if he is caught in the okiya. As Hatsumomo boyfriend Koichi is leaving, Mother wakes up and comes outside. Before she gets to the shed, Hatsumomo tucks some condoms into Chiyo's hand and tells Mother she caught her stealing and plotting to run away. Hatsumomo says "Look oki-san I caught her stealing, she was running away with her sister the whore". As Mother starts to beat Chiyo, Chiyo exclaims that she saw Hatsumomo with her boyfriend in the shed. Mother commands Auntie to take Hatsumomo's arms, and she confirms Hatsumomo had sex with someone. Mother commands that Auntie must make sure that the okiya gates have been locked. The next day, Chiyo desperately tries to think of a way to meet Satsu, so she tries to escape over the rooftops, but falls off the roof, almost breaking her chin in doing so and is discovered. As punishment for this betrayal, she must work as a maid and no longer attend geisha school. Shortly after Mother tells her that, Mother gives Chiyo a letter from Mr. Tanaka, and Chiyo learns her parents have both departed. A few days later, as she cries in the street, Chairman Iwamura Ken encounters her and shows her some kindness, offering her a cup of sweet ice. After they eat it, he hands her some change wrapped in his handkerchief. It was quite a large sum of change, but Chiyo leaves it as an offering at the temple. After this, she ardently wishes to become a geisha, in order to become a member of the Chairman's world. When Pumpkin becomes a maiko (apprentice geisha) and Hatsumomo's "younger sister" (prot間?, they begin entertaining at teahouses. On the night of Pumpkin's debut, she forgets her Shamisan, and Chiyo runs behind her to give her the instrument. After returning the instrument to Pumpkin, she peeks into the teahouse and is discovered by the Chairman as she huddles outside the door. She runs off, stopping a few minutes later and revealing that she has the Chairmen's handkerchief in her robe.
Soon after, Mameha visits the okiya to talk about training Chiyo to be a geisha; Chiyo becomes Mameha's younger sister and prot間?and is introduced to Mameha's danna, the Baron. As an apprentice geisha, Chiyo receives the new name of Sayuri. She begins entertaining at a tea house, but Hatsumomo and Pumpkin begin showing up at the tea houses. At one point bra lingerie
, Sayuri says something very clever at Hatsumomo's expense and all the men in the tea house laugh. Hatsumomo takes Sayuri into an alleyway. Hatsumomo ends up slapping her across the face and says "I shall destroy you." The next day, Mameha is dismayed to hear that Hatsumomo is bent on Sayuri's destruction, so she tries to come up with a plan to keep Sayuri out of Hatsumomo's reach. She arranges for Sayuri to meet the Chairman again, as well as his best friend and business partner Nobu Toshikazu, at a sumo match. Hatsumomo shows up at the sumo match, and Mameha instructs Sayuri to be close to Nobu in order to mislead Hatsumomo, since Nobu is covered with hideous burn-scars from fighting in Manchuria, and Hatsumomo would never steal him away from Sayuri. A few days later, Mameha tells Sayuri to cut her leg so that they can go to a doctor that Mameha knows, nicknamed Dr. Crab. That night, she takes Sayuri to a tea house, where she will present Nobu with an ekubo, a sweet rice cake that means her mizuage is ripe for selling. She explaines "Has mother ever told you about the eel and the cave?" Sayuri does not anwser. "Well every once in a while a man's eel likes to visit a woman's...cave." Yes, I know says Sayuri. Mameha then questions "You do?" Sayuri then smartly remarks that she lives in the same okiya as Hatsumomo. Mameha chuckles and says "Your cave is untouched, men like that, we call this mizuagi." She then explains that there is one special night that men from all over Gion gather and bid for who they want to have sex with. The highest bidder gets it. That is the final step before becoming a full geisha.
Mameha also encourages a relationship with Dr. Crab, attempting to have Sayuri present him with ekubo. Hatsumomo is clever, though, and discovers the relationship Mameha is attempting to forge between the Doctor and Sayuri. She spreads terrible rumors about Sayuri to the Doctor, and when Mameha and Sayuri arrive at the teahouse to entertain the Doctor, a maid turns them away. Through Pumpkin, Sayuri later learns what Hatsumomo has done. She's distraught, but Mameha says that there are plenty of other fish in the sea; they just need to cast a wider net.
All the while, Mameha knows that Mother needs to adopt one of the geishas in the okiya as her daughter and Mameha is determined to prevent Pumpkin from becoming her daughter and ruining Sayuri's future. Unfortunately, Pumpkin has already been promised the okiya club dresses
, but she would just act as a puppet to Hatsumomo. Thus, Sayuri must betray her friendship with Pumpkin and work hard to become the okiya's most valuable asset. Mameha arranges for her to dance the lead role in the upcoming spring dances. The passion with which she dances catches most of the men's attention including Dr. Crab's and the Baron's, who is Mameha's danna. Eventually, Mameha creates a bidding war for Sayuri's mizuage (her virginity) between Dr. Crab and the Baron. The only negative is that it is against Nobu's mighty principles to bid. Dr. Crab pays a record amount of money but was appointed by the Baron. Sayuri later finds out that the Baron was the highest bidder. She becomes the most celebrated geisha in Gion, increasing Hatsumomo's jealousy. One day, Sayuri discovers Hatsumomo in her room holding the Chairman's handkerchief and later taunts her by putting it over a candle; a fight ensues. Hatsumomo knocks over the candle, starting a massive fire. She leaves the okiya, never to return. Hatsumomo's fate is never revealed bandage dress
, although the book the movie is based on alludes that she became a prostitute, and eventually "drank herself to death."
Sayuri's new status as the head of the okiya and the most famous geisha is short-lived when World War II breaks out. The Chairman provides Sayuri and Mameha with a place of safety, though they must go seperatley and they must work as servants. After the war, Nobu approaches Sayuri and enlists her help. He and the Chairman have been trying to rebuild their business, but in order to do it, they need American funding. Sayuri meets up with Mameha and Pumpkin again and they become geisha once more. Sayuri is about to tell the Chairman how she feels about him when she is introduced to Colonel Derricks to convince him to invest in the Chairman's and Nobu's company.
Nobu tells Sayuri he wants to be her danna, the man who sponsors a geisha. However, Sayuri still has feelings for the Chairman, and schemes to prevent Nobu from becoming her danna. She asks Pumpkin to bring Nobu to a place where he will "discover" Sayuri and the Colonel together in a passionate embrace. Pumpkin instead brings the Chairman because she resents Sayuri for interfering with her plans to become the daughter to the okiya. When Nobu hears of this, he cannot forgive Sayuri. The Chairman eventually reveals that he knew all along that Sayuri was once Chiyo, the little girl to whom he showed kindness. Only because he told Mameha to seek out the girl with the blue-grey eyes did Chiyo become the geisha Sayuri. The film ends with Sayuri and the Chairman embracing, sharing a kiss and then walking away together.
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