With a visually eye-popping palette, first time director and well known photographer Mika Ninagawa (daughter of famed stage director Yukio Ninagawa), brings her visual style to period piece “Sakuran”. Sakuran is based on a Japanese manga and revolves around the life of courtesans in the 18th century Yoshiwara pleasure district. Kiyoha exudes siren-like mystique (Anna Tsuchiya) as a rough and tumble prostitute, an opinionated spirit who quickly rises to oiran power but not after becoming a student in the school of “hard knocks”.
Even as an impudent child, she was equipped with a razor-like tongue laced with harsh obscenities with no respect for authority figures. Her next stop would be to be sold to the Tamagikuya brothel. With the idea of freedom and escape on her mind, Kiyoha has gotten into her fair share of scuffles with other courtesans as she climbs the ranks.
Like the goldfish which swim endlessly in its self contained bowl without escape, much like the gilded fish, Kiyoha must make do in her new microcosmic environment whether she likes it or not. For much of the beginning of the film, she like it not. However, she eventually abandons her initial attempts to physically escape, and contemplates realistically her only hope. By leaving on the arm of a well to do patron (danna) could supply her with the freedom she so feverishly craved.
A thorn in both Seiji (Masanobu Ando), the chief clerk and the present oiran, Shohi’s (Miho Kanno) side who considered her uncouth, Kiyoha’s propensity for rebelliousness, fueled her motivation now to become oiran. In the dealings of brothel, the head oiran Takao (Yoshino Kimura) contests for the affections of Mitsunobu, a painter who has an equal interest in Kiyoha as well.
Love blossoms as Kiyoha develops taboo feelings for Sojiro (Hiroki Narimiya), her hot tempered nature melts in the presence of the kind hearted Sojiro who leaves her breathless. What ensues is the quintessential question of loyalty to one’s career or to one’s heart.
Anna Tsuchiya is wildly alluring in the part of Kiyoha (later she evolves with a new name- Higurashi). Kiyoha’s desire to be free combined with her tomboyish tendencies makes her character both innocent still of the world around her but also exceedingly knowing of the secret desires of her clientele. This combination makes her powerful to behold in the world she’s created for herself and within the brothel.
Sakuran is stunning with its cleverly orchestrated images, dancing camera movements and symbolism of goldfish and cherry blossoms. As a “moving painting”, the film may not set well with purists of traditional color palettes. I didn’t mind at all the vibrant colors which only served to enhance the “world” of pleasure it sought to emulate on screen. Sakuran corrects the inherent mistakes others have pointed out in, “Memoirs of a Geisha”, making it more compelling and dwelling more upon the swirling emotions of Kiyoha. Sakuran is a winner and cannot be missed.
Weak: 1 Star Average: 2 Stars Good: 3 Stars Very Good: 4 Stars Excellent: 5 Stars
Catch Sakuran and other films at Japan Cuts: Festival of Japanese Film July 2-13, 2008 at Japan Society in New York City. 333 East 47th Street, between First and Second Avenues. For tickets or more information, visit http://japansociety.org/ or call the box office at 212-715-1258.