If Sakuran was a person, it would be the kind of person other people write songs about; quirky and vital and brave, marching to the beat of a drum no one else hears; charming and impossible to dislike, drawing everyone in like moths to a flame which is in the end gone far too soon.
Which sounds like a cliché (or a 70’s rock star) and in fact is. At first, Sakuran seems to be all about style and nothing of substance, and with professional photographer Mika Ninagawa in the debut directing chair, that doesn’t sound like an unfair judgement. However, the well-worn narrative path is almost forgotten in the scenery. The way this film looks — an exuberant riot of colour and pattern and shape, a fashionista’s feverish moving picture dream — more than compensates for what might otherwise be a reasonably simple plot. Every shot is exquisitely framed, the sets lush and deliberate; and unlike the almost ninety percent CG mise en scène of films by ex-video clip directors like Kaz Kiriya, Sakuran’s aesthetic actually serves to draw a warmer, more vivid picture around its human focus, directing attention to its hyper-real reality by making it a design feature that the cast plays off against to grandiose effect.
Kiyoha, played to voracious effect by j-rock songstress Anna Tsuchiya, is the poster child for Memoirs of a Geisha, punk rock style. Sold as a prepubescent to a flower house in the infamous Yoshiwara district, Kiyoha has her hard life already die cut out for her. It’s obvious from the start (and experience with similar narratives) that she’s going to get that rebelliousness beaten out of her sooner or later and really it’s only a matter of time.
This is only partly true however, because like all such stories, the point is not the hardships that one lives through, but what one manages to hold on to despite them, and where one ends up because of that. Kiyoha, through the desire to survive and to do it in such a way that causes the most inconvenience for the people she despises, makes her way from lowly apprentice to top call girl practically kicking and screaming the whole way.
It’s a showcase performance by Tsuchiya, and it’s almost impossible not to just be captured by her — her unconventional beauty, her tomboyish mannerisms, her skewed sense of humour. A less extroverted actress would never have suited the part, would never have been able to make as much sense of it as Tsuchiya does. She is in fact so right in this role, it’s more than likely to have been written for her, rather than cast. Her contemporary attitude serves to highlight the character’s struggle, while Ninagawa’s directing and her eye for composition and design highlight the false happiness of life in the pleasure quarter.
Complementing this Modern Girl in an Edo World tale, the soundtrack, like a page out of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, is fantastically anachronistic; a big band jazz score and the amazing pop vocals of Tokyo Jihen’s front lady Shiina Ringo. The combination of vivid colours, video clip aesthetics, and this kind of soundtrack is somehow refreshing, original and thoroughly electrifying. Sure it’s been done before, but never quite like this, and the overall effect really has to be seen to be believed.
Is it a love story, though? Masanobu Ando (Big Bang Love Juvenile A, Sukiyaki Western Django) appears as the quietly obedient Seiji, a house manager/bouncer who watches protectively over Kiyoha without ever peeling away from the background, and Kippei Shiina (Shinobi) cameos as the rich, gentle Lord Kuranosuke who courts Kiyoha at the height of her career as tayuu (a tayuu is the top oiran, and an oiran is the top girl from each house. Tayuu’s were considered only suitable for a daimyou — the most powerful feudal lords short of the Shogun). And Kiyoha does fall in love, but the spirit of this story is not about love, but about freedom; one gets the sense, at the end, that the love is just an added bonus.