Some films are virtually impossible not to like. Mika Ninagawa’s debut feature, Sakuran, based on the manga of the same name by Moyocco Anno, is an exuberant film with an infectious pop sensibility. A well-known fashion photographer, Ninagawa’s experience shines through in the film’s gorgeous visuals and set pieces. Starring Anna Tsuchiya, herself a model and pop-star, Sakuran tells the story of Kiyoha, a young girl sold into prostitution in 18th-century Edo, Japan.
Kiyoha’s feisty character refuses to settle into the narrow confines of Yoshiwara, the nightlife quarter, yearning to escape back into life outside. Her attempts merely result in her repeatedly being caught, beaten and called a ‘filthy, little boiled root’. Her stubborn streak leads to a change of tack – her new goal is not to get away, but to master the art of being an oiran – the highest-ranking prostitute. Though dismayed by the ‘women, women, women… a world of women’, the young Kiyoha’s determination to prove people wrong leads her up the ladder to become one of the brothel’s most valuable assets, stepping on numerous silk-clad toes as she climbs. But her bitchy, riot-girl demeanour conceals a remarkable generosity and tenderness, perfectly captured by Tsuchiya in her terrific performance. Kiyoha refuses to believe that the women are like goldfish – beautiful only within the glass bowl of the brothel, ugly carps in the wild, never giving up on her desire to escape from Yoshiwara on her own terms.
Ninagawa’s film is the perfect antidote to the appalling, Western view of Japanese women propagated by Rob Marshall’s unfortunate Memoirs of a Geisha (which sadly cast two otherwise talented Chinese actresses in the main roles). Anna Tsuchiya’s spirited performance refuses to pander to a male desire for submissive Asian women. And though popular themes in Japanese cinema abound here – the rebellious teen, the star-crossed lovers, the sense of being trapped within the confines of tradition – Ninagawa creates a world that is all hers, a lavish, alternate reality, full of reds and golds, that delights in an almost sensual pleasure, whether it’s the stunning kimonos or the smooth texture of the women’s skin. Most importantly, she creates a world where Kiyoha discovers that she can make her own rules.
Despite its historical setting, the film insists on being contemporary. The soundtrack by Shiina Ringo flows from jazz to pop to heavy rock, continuing the break from tradition. In one scene, Kiyoha, now the brothel’s oiran, performs the traditional promenade to the sounds of drony, heavy guitar; in another, Kiyoha’s passionate lovemaking ends with a burst into a cabaret tune. The eclectic music adds yet another dimension to the film’s playful punk-rock aesthetic.
Cherry blossoms are a national obsession in Japan. Every spring, weather forecasts track the spread of the blossoms across the country, while people throw endless parties beneath the trees, eating and drinking for hours. Named for these blossoms, Sakuran is a beautifully vibrant film, full of colour and light, and simply gorgeous to watch.