“Pretending there’s something there when there isn’t…it’s petty,” says Kiyoha (Anna Tsuchiya), the protagonist of Sakuran, “I don’t do that. Pretending there’s nothing there when there is something, that’s called style.” While that tasty little morsel of dialogue turns out to be a fairly accurate self-appraisal on the part of the main character, one can’t help but wonder if it was meant to be taken as some kind of meta-commentary on the film itself. Certainly, Sakuran has “style” in spades, but whether that actually enhances the film’s substantive value or instead comes at the expense of it, remains somewhat of an open question by story’s end.
Based on the popular manga by Moyoco Anno, Sakuran is, for lack of a better comparison, a home-grown Memoirs of a Geisha dialed up to eleven. Sakuran takes the spotlight off of high-profile geishas and focuses it on low-level prostitutes, two groups which have become, I’m afraid, indistinguishable to most Western audiences. But whereas Rob Marshall’s beautiful, yet much-maligned 2005 costume drama took hits from critics and audiences alike for its historical inaccuracies and controversial casting choices, Sakuran makes no such claims to approximating any actual historical reality. Purposefully anachronistic and over-the-top, the film is nothing less than a full-blown re-imagining of the Edo period. This is a world of opulence, bathed in vibrant hues of crimson.
Director Mika Ninagawa cast half-Russian, half-Japanese singer/actress Anna Tsuchiya as Kiyoha, a tough-as-nails courtesan. The character isn’t too far removed from the one Tsuchiya played in her international hit, Kamikaze Girls. Everything from Kiyoha’s bawdy language to her devil-may-care attitude screams anachronism. In that sense, she’s comes across as more or less a modern-day biker chick dolled up in Edo-drag.
Trapped in a brothel since childhood, Kiyoha’s only hope is to rise up the ranks and attain the title of Oiran. From that position, she just might claim the attention of some rich suitor, and maybe, just maybe he’ll want to take her home someday. As a child, Kiyoha makes a promise to herself that she’ll leave the brothel by the time a certain cherry tree blooms. One problem: it’s dead.
Of course, that doesn’t stop Kiyoha from trying to escape much earlier. But she’s thwarted at each attempt by Seiji (Masanobu Ando), an otherwise nice guy in the brothel’s employ who is also the presumptive heir to his adopted family’s business. But he doesn’t seem to be on Kiyoha’s radar at first. As a prostitute, she encounters numerous other prospects: a dirty old man with a heart of gold (Sadanji Ichikawa), a young Romeo named Sojiro (Hiroki Narimiya), and the rich samurai, Kuranosuke (Kippei Shiina), who may just hold the keys to her freedom. Will she escape? Or is their another option she’s overlooking?
As paradoxical as it may sound, aside from the eye-popping visuals, there’s really nothing particularly spectacular about Sakuran. Certainly, it’s fun to watch Anna Tsuchiya chew up scenery, projecting equal parts vulnerability and vampishness as the tough-talking Kiyoha, but the film itself never really comes close to matching the maverick spirit embodied by its leading lady.
From a narrative standpoint, Sakuran is surprisingly pedestrian. Thematically, Sakuran wants to make the connection between the film’s repeated motif of goldfish and the prostitutes that populate the story proper. Both are beautiful creatures put on display for other’s pleasure, but otherwise trapped and doomed to die in benevolent captivity. It’s an apt comparison, but sadly, neither the narrative nor the performance provides the emotional oomph needed to realize that metaphor in any substantial or felt way on the part of the audience. Sakuran may indeed be gorgeous, but in the end, pretty colors alone do not a film make. (Calvin McMillin, 2008)