Leave it to the Japanese to do geisha stories right. The popular notion of the demure yet exotic Japanese courtesan has long been propagated by fetishistic Western male fantasies, despite the fact that the Edo-era pleasure quarters were hardly bastions of reserved refinement. Sakuran blows this stereotype wide open by portraying young prostitutes as feisty riot grrls, headstrong and passionate. Even before the words “memoirs” can be muttered, Sakuran’s beginning frame immediately propels the audience into a riotous and sensually stunning world unlike anything seen before.
Adapted from artist Anno Moyoco’s popular manga by accomplished director/scriptwriter Yuki Tanada, the film brings to life the courtesan world of the 1700s with a decidedly 21st century verve and attitude. The director, acclaimed photographer Mika Ninagawa, purposefully ditches any semblances of adherence to period accuracy, instead favouring cheeky Marie Antoinette-esque anachronisms by using vivid splashes of red and gold as visual background and blaring modern rock music by Ringo Shiina as the accompanying soundtrack. Even the heroine, the rebellious yet beautiful Kiyoha, is played by half-Caucasian, half-Japanese model/rock idol/actress Anna Tsuchiya, whose bad-girl attitude is a perfect fit for the film’s ferocious originality. The combined talents of the five women behind Sakuran, all at the top of their respective fields, are a testament to the creativity of female artists in today’s Japan.
The plot, though set up in the classic vein of a reluctant prostitute forced to move up ranks within the competitive world of brothels, is actually more about the struggle between love and fame, rather than the usual commentary on Japanese patriarchy. Indeed, the “oirans,” or the highest-ranking courtesans, could be compared to today’s pop stars: renowned and adored for their beauty and performances, yet unattainable except for the elite few. Despite all the public adulation, Kiyoha cannot attain happiness, even when a supposed savior – a rich samurai – comes to take her hand in marriage. Perhaps freedom has come too late to save Kiyoha from her gilded prison?
Similar to its bold protagonist, Sakuran is like a peacock strutting its iridescent plumes – a film made to dazzle the senses and quicken the heart. The combination of sumptuous visuals, a rocking and eclectic soundtrack, and a story with all its feistiness and romantic yearnings intact, ensures that this is a movie event not to be missed.
– Raymond Phathanavirangoon
Mika Ninagawa was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1972. She has won numerous prizes for her photography, including the 13th Canon New Cosmos of Photography Award for Excellence, among a host of others. Fans of her unique world view and color aesthetic come from a wide range of fields: fashion, advertising, modern art, and even actresses, actors, and models. She has published more than 30 books of her photographs, and is known as one of the best-selling photographers in Japan. She began filmmaking with the short Cheap Trip, released online in 2003. Sakuran (2007) is her first full-length feature film.