“Tokyo was once a tiny village called Edo. The city owes its rapid expansion to the fact that, document.write(“”); in 1603, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu wanted to found the country’s capital at a place that was as far away as possible from the imperial seat in Kyoto. Edo soon grew to become a magnificent city. Anyone passing beneath the Great Gate of the new capital entered a glamorous world of pleasure and recreation, with a row of elegant brothels in the Yoshiwara district stretching over a kilometre. The courtesans who worked there were expected to be well-versed in music, dance and parlour games, as well as the art of flower arranging. Sakuran tells the story of one woman living in the lustrous world of Yoshiwara who was determined to stand on her own two feet and live life as she pleased.” (From the 2007 Montreal World Film Festival official programming book)
WARNING: May contains trace of spoilers! People allergic to the discussion of any plot’s elements before seeing a movie are strongly advised to take the necessary precautions for their safety and should avoid reading further.
With this movie, you enter the flamboyant “floating world” of 17th Century Japan’s Ukiyo-e — as it is reminiscent of that era’s woodblock prints and paintings which often represented courtesans and scenes of the pleasure quarters. What makes this film so unique is that most of the people who created Sakuran are women! The creator of the original manga, Moyoco Anno, the director, Mika Ninagawa, the scriptwriter, Yuki Tanada, and most of the cast are all women. Sakuran is a movie about women who need to survive in a harsh environment like the Yoshiwara District of Edo.
The movie is based on a manga by Moyoco Anno. She’s a very popular mangaka, especially amongst female readership and it seems that several of her works have been adapted either as TV drama (Happy Mania in 1998), anime series (Sugar Sugar Rune in 2005-06) or even both (Hataraki Man in 2006-07). Unlike the manga that emphasizes the harsh life of Kiyoha when she was still a little girl, telling how young maids are raised and trained to become professional courtesans, the movie covers quickly Kiyoha’s youth, telling mostly the story of her quick rise to the top and of her struggle for freedom. For more information on the manga you can read our previous blog entry dedicated to this subject (in french; but you can try the automated translation which is unfortunately not always accurate and often hilarious).
During the Japanese Shogun era, prostitution was legal in certain areas. The Yoshiwara District was the Shogunate’s official place for gentlemen to buy prostitutes. It was situated in the north district of Edo (the ancient name for Tokyo) and was often called “Hakkoku” (The North Country). Many aspects of Japanese culture were born in that district, as it was a very trendy place to be for artists, musicians and poets. Although gentlemen could circulate freely, most of its residents — the women — were prevented to leave by walls and moats. It was like a giant prison where the women had to work hard to survive, trying their best to preserve their humanity. Sakuran is the story of a girl named Kiyoha who becomes an Oiran (meaning “head flower,” or the best of the high-class courtesans) of the Yoshiwara District.
The title, Sakuran, means cherry blossoms. They are very beautiful, but only last for a short time. Like cherry blossoms, a woman’s beauty doesn’t last long, and despite all the beauty of the courtesans’ life, it is a very cruel world. When she was merely eight years old, Kiyoha was sold as a helping maid to a courtesans’ house. She is a tough kid and despite the hard work and abuse, she never gives in and tries to be as noble as a human can possibly be. “How dare you! Don’t ever look down on us, Oirans!” is her attitude. She eventually learns to use her charm and techniques to bewitch customers and becomes an Oiran herself.
As the story progresses, two men come into Kiyoha’s life. Kuranosuke and Seiji are both good-hearted, but come from different social classes. Kuranosuke is the son of a very rich samurai class family and becomes her regular customer. He is so madly in love with her that he wants to marry her despite the fact that she is a prostitute. However, Kiyoha loves Seiji, an honest and sincere shopkeeper who promised to get her out of her golden cage if the old, dried-out cherry tree in the court of the courtesans’ house ever blossoms. She is not interested in the money and luxurious life of a samurai household. She simply wants freedom. But could she actually survive in the uncertainty of the outside world when all she has ever known is the rotten, artificial world of the courtesans? A new life outside might be as short as the cherry blossoms, but her freedom would be well worth the risk. This story tells us not to give up on hope — just like Kiyoha.
Anna Tsuchiya, who plays Kiyoha, is absolutely gorgeous in this film, as if she was born to play this part. Her juvenile delinquent attitude fits very well the role as Kiyoha is inherently very rebellious. Director Ninagawa succeeded in giving life to the Yoshiwara District and viewers really feel transported into the past, seeing Edo through the eyes of these women who, despite their hardship, still eat sweets, play with cats, smoke pipes and take naps.
Director Ninagawa’s experience as a photographer is obvious in the way she frames the scenes and in the picturesque quality of the set. The movie is shot like a flamboyant fashion show or the pages of a fashion magazine. Everything is beautiful, from the rich flower arrangements to the hairdos and kimonos of the courtesans. She uses lots of symbolism, like the cherry blossoms or the goldfish stuck in their tank like the courtesans imprisoned in their “floating world.” Despite the seriousness of the subject, the movie’s modern feel and colourful set, rich in vivid colors, make it a funny and entertaining experience.
All in all, Sakuran is a sort of Memoir of a Geisha with a modern touch and a relatively happy ending. At first, however, the rebellious attitude of the main character and the vivid, colourful scenery felt quite odd for a period drama, but once I had read the manga it all made sense: I realized that Director Ninagawa had successfully transposed the feel and imagery of the manga, even Moyoco Anno’s particular style and very fashionable designs. Although I must admit that this style of movie would have been more suited for a festival targeting a younger, subculture audience, like Fantasia, than a traditional venue like the Montreal World Film Festival. Another surprising discovery is that this movie is, so far, available only in Asia and in Europe. That’s the kind of title I would have expected Viz’ New People Entertainment to release in the USA and Canada. Hopefully, they (or someone else) will release it in a near future.
Sakuran: Japan, 2007, 111 min.; Dir.: Mika Ninagawa; Scr.: Yuki Tanada (based on Moyoco Anno’s manga); Phot.: Takuro Ishizaka; Ed.: Hiroaki Morishita; Prod. Des.: Namiko Iwaki; Music: Ringo Shiina; Prod.: Tamotsu Shiina; Distr.: Asmik Ace; Cast: Anna Tsuchiya (Kiyoha/Higurashi), Kippei Shiina (Kuranosuke), Yoshino Kimura (Takao), Hiroki Narimiya (Sojiro), Miho Kanno (Shohi), Masatoshi Nagase (Mitsunobu), Masanobu Ando (Seiji), Kenichiro Endo (Sakaguchi), Renji Ishibashi (owner). Screened as part of the “Focus on world cinema” segment at the 2007 Montreal World Film Festival in early september 2007. Theatrically released in Japan on 2007/02/24 and available in Japan on R2 Dvd (ACBD-10523, NTSC, Japanese with English subtitles, 111 min., ¥4,700, released on 2007/08/03, rated PG-12). Also available in UK (Ica Films, R2, PAL), France (Kaze, R2, PAL), Germany (Alive, R2, PAL), Korea (R3, NTSC) and Taiwan (R3, NTSC).
For more information you can check the following web sites:
Kiyoha / Higurashi: At 8 years old, she was brought to the Yoshiwara District to work as a helper maid in the Tamagiku-ya brothel and was given the name, Kiyoha. At 18 years old, she was chosen to become an Oiran and her name was once again changed to Higurashi (Miss Twilight). Thanks to her beauty and attitude, she becomes the number one prostitute in Yoshiwara District. She tries to keep a noble attitude and only takes men whom she likes and chooses.
Takao: She was the number one Oiran at Tamagiku-ya until Kiyoha showed up. She is madly in love with the Ukiyo-e artist Mitsunobu. When she finds out that he is in love with Kiyoha, she becomes jealous and tries to entrap her.
Shohi: She was an Oiran when Kiyoha came to Tamagiku-ya as a maid helper. She was very nice to her and Kiyoha adored her. She was given a very good marriage deal by a rich man and eventually left the District. She gave Kiyoha her hairpin as a parting gift.
The World of Sakuran
The vocabulary of the pleasure quarter’s world is old and possibly unfamiliar to most viewers—and even to many modern Japanese people. Here are a few words that might help you better understand the movie and the manga:
Oiran: It means the number one flower, the flower star. Oirans were the upper class Edo Era’s prostitutes. Originally, their helping maids—the kamuro—started calling those ladies “Oira no Neesan” (my elder sister lady) and the brothel people created the contraction “Oiran” to call their star prostitutes. When younger maids were discovered by brothel madams as future stars of the place, they were given an education in poetry, singing and playing instruments like Shamisen, or games like shogi (Japanese style chess) as well as other techniques to entertain customers. The service of an Oiran is expensive; they are thus often reserved for upper class, samurai men.
Zegen: These people are dealers who sell little girls to brothels to make a profit. They travel all over Japan, especially in very poor fishing villages, searching for good looking little girls to be sold at Yoshiwara. In the manga version, the Zegen who sold Kiyoha was a man, but in the movie, it is Oran (Miss Orchid), a former Oiran at Tamagiku-ya. Abandoned by the rich man she had married, she needed money to survive and became a Zegen.
Miuke: It literally means “receiving the body,” but could be translated as “to get married”. Many Oirans hope to get a good marriage in order to get out of Yoshiwara, but it sometimes ends up tragically. When a customer falls in love with an Oiran and wants to marry her, he has to buy back her contract — which can means paying a massive amount of money, sometimes up to 1000 Ryo ($700,000) for a no. 1 Oiran. Usually, the men who married Oirans were viewed as oddballs in the Edo society.
Mise Ban: It means “the shopkeeper.” They are men who worked at the brothel, taking care of various chores and miscellaneous duties such as running errands and holding umbrellas for Oiran ladies.
Mabu: It means the “prostitute’s lover.” Life in Yoshiwara was difficult and harsh, so in order to give them some emotional support, the courtesans were allowed to have lovers. In a famous Kabuki play, they were saying “If a prostitute does not have a Mabu (a lover), she lives in the darkness.” Lots of them also have tattoos of their lover’s names on their bodies.
This is an updated version of an article written by MM & CJP previously published in Protoculture Addicts #96: 72-73.
Sakuran © Ninagawa gumi-group / SAKURAN Film Committee.
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