Geisha devote their lives to culture, elegance and virtuosity. Love and courtship are not part of the program, yet the heart must be intelligent to endure the hardships, isolation and politics required to become a geisha.
When dealing with brutal realities, a venomous rival (Gong Li), and a cruel mistress (Tsai Chin), despair is an indulgence Chiyo (Ziyi Zhang) cannot afford. Rationality is a necessity as the movie walks a taut line between tragedy and hope. A negative emotional charge is most felt in the savagely uncaring atmosphere of Chiyo's adopted home.
Karma finally smiles upon young Chiyo with the arrival of patron of the arts, the Chairman (Ken Watanabe). It is a pivotal moment that shows Chiyo kindness in a world that seemed to have none. With the passing of years, Chiyo finds a mentor in Mameha (Michelle Yeoh), who schemes to pay her financial debts and make her Kyoto's preeminent geisha.