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  • 15
  • Drama, History
  • 2006
  • 111 mins




Mika Ninagawa's feature debut is a modern take on classic courtesanship - directed, written, scored, designed and (largely) performed by women


"Cry and you lose. Love and you lose. Win and you lose."

This is what Seiji (Ando) tells Kiyoha (Tsuchiya) of her fragile status as a courtesan in 1700s Japan - and as a whore's son himself and head clerk at the Tamagikuya brothel in the Yoshiwara pleasure district, he is in a good position to know. Kiyoha's profession, it seems, is a losing game, although as Seiji had pointed out to Kiyoha earlier after one of her several attempts to escape the district: "Even if you manage to get out, it's no different outside."

Here those who do not leave their indentured profession in a coffin usually end up as aged procurers, passing down their misery to the next generation, or the luckiest ones might see themselves transferred to the property of a wealthy client.

Sold to the brothel at age eight, Kiyoha is taken under the wing of oiran (or top-ranking courtesan) Shohi (Kanno) and taught the 'tricks of the trade', before Shohi successfully marries her way out of the business. At 17, Kiyoha has become a languid 'goddess' whose aloofness and petulance only add to her allure - and her popularity with the clients quickly attracts the jealousy of the aging in-house oiran Takao (Kimura).

Soon Kiyoha will herself become oiran, but not before she has experienced real love (regarded as a threat in this world of deception) and loss. The besotted and unusually decent samurai Kuranosuke (Shiina) offers to take Kiyoha (now renamed Higurashi) away with him, but will she ever get to fulfil her childish dream of leaving entirely on her own terms? Not unless an old cherry tree blooms for the first time in decades.

Goldfish, like cherry blossoms, are something of a cliche in classical Japanese iconography, but in Mika Ninagawa's Sakuran, they are transformed into active symbols even as they retain their traditional aesthetic value. Here, the goldfish through whose bowls so many of the film's scenes are shot come to encapsulate the courtesans' own status as objects of display, whose whole way of life depends upon their containment. Outside their bowl, they would either turn into valueless carp or - worse - asphyxiate. Inside, they may have little real freedom, but their beauty is undeniable.

It is a double-edge that permeates the film, for while Ninagawa frequently reminds us of the humiliations, beatings and sorrows to which the courtesans are subjected, at the same time she wraps all their misery in a wondrously aestheticised package, using every 'trick of the trade' at her disposal.

The set design is exquisite, the costumes and coiffures immaculate, the colours explode gaudily on screen, but far from inappropriately glamorising an exploitative industry, all this cinematic opulence serves to reflect a world where cosmetics, fakery and concealment are the stock in trade, but where what lies beneath the surface sheen is far less pretty. Or, to put it another way, we may, like Kuranosuke, be seduced by the ornate splendour of Higurashi's furnishings, but as she herself is quick to point out, "there's nothing in it".

Adapted from the manga by Moyoco Anno, what Sakuran lacks in original plotting it makes up for with what is, for a period film, a surprisingly modern sensibility. It is not just that Kiyoha's cheeky loucheness and love of independence (rather brilliantly embodied by model/popstar Tsuchiya) mark her out as a twenty-first century gal trapped in an eighteenth century setting, but also that the sort of stately, restrained cinematography more normally associated with the 'fallen woman' subgenre (thanks to Kenji Mizoguchi's influence) is here replaced by an altogether more dynamic style - all unusual angles and cut-up sequences, even including a rapid montage of bathing women's breasts.

Most strikingly of all, composer Ringo Shiina has opted for tango, cabaret, breezy J-pop, rock and jazz to accompany the images. It is a jarring effect, revitalising (at the risk of also trivialising) a rather old-fashioned type of story while also suggesting that the difficulties and choices faced by Kiyoha and her 'sisters' might equally apply to women today who seek a path of independence in a world still all too ready to objectify, commodify and exploit. Or, to recall Seiji's words, "it's no different outside".

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Masanobu Ando, Miho Kanno, Renji Ishibashi, Megumi Yamaguchi, Mari Natsuki, Hiroki Narimiya, Kippei Shiina, Yoshino Kimura, Sadanji Ichikawa, Anna Tsuchiya
  • Director: Mika Ninagawa
  • Screen Writer: Yuki Tanada
  • Writer (Comic book): Moyoco Anno
  • Producer: Yoshinori Fujita, Mitsuru Uda
  • Photographer: Takuro Ishizaka
  • Composer: Ringo Shiina

In a nutshell

Loud and lurid, this dazzlingly picturesque peek through the courtesans' fishbowl embraces the very cosmetic illusions that it also exposes in a world of exploited women.

by Anton Bitel

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