Sakuran Review

Prostitution: The oldest profession in the world. Every country has its own laws (or not) regarding this infamous art, and every culture has been affected and altered to a certain extent by the men and women who are willing to ply their trade. At its grass roots prostitution is a very unglamourous, perhaps miserable affair; but in some countries prostitutes were once the idols of their time. This is perhaps true no more than in Japan during the Edo era, when the Tokugawa regime decided to clean up its city centres by establishing walled-in entertainment districts on the outskirts of all the major cities. Within these walls human desire would run wild, and prostitution became so ritualised that it became a pseudo-heirarchal system where the courtesans with the greatest beauty, most refined elegance, and superior intellect could rise up the ranks and become the oiran – the head prostitute of each brothel. These oiran were essentially the supermodels of their day, the most glamorous and sophisticated beauties, and they could even dictate the fashion trends of the whole nation, such was the influence of these queens of the pleasure quarters.


Sakuran tells the story of a tenacious young girl who is sold to the Tamagikuya brothel by her mother and reluctantly rises up the ranks to become known as one of the greatest oirans in the district of Yoshiwara. As soon as the Tamagikuya owns her, they give her the name Kiyoha and put her under the wing of the current oiran: Shiho. Shiho pokes fun at the rather tomboyish young girl and as soon as the opportunity presents itself, Kiyoha makes a run for it, but she is eventually chased down at the local shrine by one of Tamagikuya’s male attendants: Seiji. There she witnesses cherry blossom leaves – her one overriding memory from the outside world – that have been blown into the district by the wind, and laments to Seiji that there are no sakura trees within the walls of Yoshiwara. In response Seiji points out that the withered old tree that stands on the shrine grounds is in fact a sakura tree, and he vows that if the tree ever blossoms he will take her away from the district. Kiyoha’s reply is to stubbornly claim she will escape on her own when such an event occurs.

Hated by the other young girls at the Tamagikuya because she refuses to obey the rules, Kiyoha eventually begins to learn the “tricks of the trade” after being carefully manipulated by Shohi, who soon leaves the brothel after a rich merchant takes her for his wife. By her late teens Kiyoha is put to work as a prostitute and quickly garners the affections of the townsmen who all go giddy in her presence. This in turn upsets Shohi’s oiran successor: Takao - who is in a doomed relationship with a poor artist - and a bitchy rivalry is established. Eventually Kiyoha falls in love with a kind unassuming young man named Shouji, but he’s not quite the man he makes himself to be and their relationship affects Kiyoha’s performance with other clients. This is just one obstacle amongst many on Kiyoshi’s path to becoming oiran of the Tamagikuya.

The first thing that strikes you when sitting down to watch Mika Ninagawa’s directorial debut is that she’s clearly completely unconcerned with painting a realistic portrait of the pleasure quarters of old and the courtesans, entertainers, and customers that frequented them. Instead Ninagawa has chosen to not so much remain faithful to Sakuran’s comic book roots, but amplify the visuals in an impressionistic explosion of pop art. A popular photographer who has worked for world famous magazines like Vogue and Esquire, Ninagawa has successfully managed to bring her distinctive style into the medium of moving pictures, as every frame of Sakuran is an opulent display of art and colour. Vivid red colour schemes have commonly been prevalent in her photography work and they’re almost omnipresent in Sakuran, with the pleasure quarter of Yoshiwara transformed into a crimson landscape by searing red lanterns. Inside the Tamagikuya are bright displays of every bold colour you can think of: reds, greens, yellows, violets, and just about every surface in the building have some form of gorgeous artwork adorning them. Likewise the courtesans' Kimonos and hairstyles are excessively extravagant, looking like a whole team of art designers have worked on each one. It’s all a far cry from how these brothels and courtesans would have looked in the real world, but perhaps Ninagawa is onto something here – after all today’s filmgoers have become a hell of a lot more accustomed to bold displays of colour in both their environment and art. So, maybe the only way you can truly convey just how glamourous these pleasure quarters and courtesans would have appeared to the average customer is to really ramp up the style. Either way, it works - and purely on style alone Sakuran definitely engages throughout its 110 minute runtime.


It’s a good job as well, because Ninagawa is working from a script that is every bit as bland as the visuals are colourful. Sakuran gives us very little insight into the world of the oiran, instead it just plugs away at the same old tired story of someone with innate talent in a chosen field rebelliously rising through the ranks and refusing to conform along the way. This has been told so many times within the film and television industries of Japan that it has gone beyond cliché, it’s become rote! Sakuran goes right through all the usual checkpoints: Cruel but ultimately kind mentor? Check! Older woman in a doomed relationship who takes out her frustrations on the more beautiful and talented lead? Check! Handsome man who courts and seduces female lead but ultimately turns out to be a snake? Check! Handsome man who is kind hearted and been helping female lead from the sidelines throughout her life? Check! There is a genuine lack of inspiration here, and the problem wouldn’t have been compounded so much if the characters at least had some life in them, but they’re every bit as vapid as the plot.

The men are given a rawer deal than the women, the two love interests: Soujiro and Seiji are both dichotomous individuals: Soujiro pretends to be a kind hearted, naïve young man to the courtesans at night, but ultimately has little interest in the women beyond soliciting their services. Seiji acts as a brotherly figure to Kiyoha, always there to dispense advice and moral support when she needs him, yet he is working as a male attendant in the brothel. This is far from an ethical career, and it is he who is constantly foiling Kiyoha’s escape plans. Despite these contradictions, Ninagawa never explores the darker side of these two characters, In Soujiro’s case that’s not so important, but Seiji is a role that’s crying out for something to make him stand out. It doesn’t help that the men cast in these roles: Hiroki Narimiya and Masanobu Ando are likeable but rather prosaic actors; both roles need someone who can bring a bit of life to them. Masatoshi Nagase and Kippei Shiina are two better character actors, but they’re left floundering in the under-developed roles of the tortured artist boyfriend of oiran Takao: Mitsunobu and Kiyoha’s rich samurai suitor: Kuronosuke. The women have a little more life in them, but they’re all cardboard clichés. The standout example is oiran Takao, a typical bitch whose resentment of Kiyoha is fuelled by the fact she fell for a poor nonchalant artist who could never afford to buy her out of the brothel. Yoshino Kimura plays her quite broadly and appears to be enjoying herself. Even Kiyoha herself is little more than a precocious madam whose aggression towards her fellow courtesans is matched by her disdain for her upper-class clientele.


I got the impression whilst watching Sakuran that Ninagawa has been influenced to a certain degree by directors like Seijun Suzuki, Kon Ichikawa, and by opening the film with a rapid fire montage sequence showing future events I’d add Takashi Miike to the list. However, Ninagawa doesn’t approach the material with the same level of depth or subtext as these directors would. About the only recurring symbolic item we do get are the frequent shots of fantail goldfish (another trademark from her photography career), which in case you can’t figure out their meaning, is blatantly explained to the viewer when Shohi lectures Kiyoha after knocking a goldfish out of its bowl that: “Put a goldfish in a river and you get a carp. They only stay beautiful in their bowl!”. Perhaps Ninagawa’s most inspired decision beyond the aesthetics of the film was in casting Anna Tsuchiya in the role of Kiyoha, because aside from the physical resemblance Tsuchiya has to the original comic book character design of Kiyoha, her own life mirrors that of her role. Tsuchiya was scouted for a career as a model from a young age and has now risen to the top of the music and film industry to boot. Plus, the fact that at the tender age of 23 she’s already got a failed marriage and child behind her would suggest a high level of rebellion against these heavily produced and manufactured industries. What a shame then that these obvious parallels between the courtesans of the Edo era with the idols of modern day Japan are not explored more completely.

Ultimately, watching Sakuran is like owning a beautiful sleek sports car with a 1.6l engine. Sure it makes a strong visual statement and provides a comfortable, enjoyable ride; but you’re always aware that it doesn’t have enough horsepower to truly exhilarate.

Presentation

This 2-disc Special Edition release of Sakuran comes encased in an attractive fold out digipack and cast & crew information booklet (along with a paper chapter stops insert and an Asmik Ace DVD catalogue). For screenshots of the set, click the thumbnails below:

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Presented anamorphically at roughly 1.82:1, Sakuran appears to have been shot with high exposure and the film processed to boost the colours. I believe they may have achieved this by clipping the grayscale, resulting in a high contrast look that has limited the shadow detail a little. Still, despite the extremely bold colour scheme Asmik Ace’s DVD transfer looks absolutely sumptuous at times. The reproduction of the colours is pretty excellent, they’re bold and vivid with hardly any bleeding that I could notice. The encoding is very strong, but understandably given the intensity of the colours, there is some chroma noise present – particularly in the searing reds – but it’s never noticeable enough to distract. The print used is pristine, with only the opening scene demonstrating any noticeable spots and flecks, and the image is sharp and free of any noticeable Edge Enhancements. Contrast and brightness seem just about right for a film shot and processed in the manner previously mentioned; the image does look high contrast but shadow detail remains pretty good.

The audio choices are Japanese DD5.1 and DD2.0 surround. For the purposes of this review I sat through both sound tracks and can report they both provide a more than adequate audio presentation of this loud, vibrant film. The DD5.1 track is aggressively loud, bringing the rock tracks that seep into the soundtrack later into the film vividly to life. The audio dynamics are generally excellent, each element of the sound always sounds nicely separated and localised in the mix. Dialogue too is completely clean and audible, while the pounding bass remains smooth and tight. In comparison the DD2.0 is obviously much quieter and the sound is a touch more hollow, but otherwise this is an excellent DD2.0 track that also demonstrates strong dynamics, smooth audible dialogue and strong bass.


Optional English subtitles are included, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.

Extras

Note: Before I rundown the considerable extra features in this 2disc set, I’d just like to point out that almost all of this footage is in Japanese without any English subtitles or translations whatsoever.

Disc 01

Most of the extras on the movie disc are very brief and self-explanatory, so I’ll just list most of them:

Audio Commentary With Director Mika Ninagawa, Producer Mitsuru Uda, and Actors: Anna Tsuchiya and Masanobu Ando: The only substantial extra on this disc: Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, this appears to be a friendly, humourous chat through the film by the cast and crew.

Festival Soundbites Montage (00min 40secs): This features brief comments from Sakuran Manga creator (and wife of Hideaki Anno) Moyoco Anno, Screenwriter Yuki Tanada, Actress Anna Tsuchiya, and finally Director Nina Mikagawa.

Behind-the-Scenes Clip (00m 34s): Another short TV advertisement which just shows some digicam footage of the shooting of one of the opening scenes of the film; where Kiyoha lays into Wakagiku.

Short Teaser (00m 41s): Made up of brief snippets and soundbites from the film.

The rest of the features are self-explanatory:

Theatrical Trailer (2m 07s)
2 x 15sec TV Spots
30sec TV Spot


Disc 02:

Shove the 2nd disc into your DVD player and you’re confronted with around two and a half hours of extra material. They are:

Behind-the-Scenes Documentary (62min 42secs) This sprawling catalogue of the film’s shoot is actually presented as a calendar in the feature’s menu, so you can either watch the documentary in segments assigned by their date during the film’s shoot, or simply play it all in one go. The feature is pretty much entirely built up of behind the scenes footage accompanied by a voice over explaining each scene and the current date of filming. The documentary shows everyone in high spirits mucking about behind the scenes, and you can tell Mika Ninagawa runs a pretty light-hearted set.

Deleted Scenes Montage (08m 20s):I’d imagine most of these scenes were left out for pacing reasons, there’s a reasonably lengthy scene where the lower-ranked courtesans of the Tamagikuya (Kiyoha included) have dinner and talk about the brothel, a couple of scenes between Kiyoha and Soujiro, and a brief love scene between Kiyoha and Kuranosuke. Interestingly there are also a lot of brief scenes in here that show more of the Yoshiwara district outside of the Tamagikuya, perhaps they were dropped to keep the focus on the brothel – incidentally a few of these scenes deal with how Kiyoha escapes the district to go and see Soujiro in the neighbouring Nihonbashi district, so this segment must have been a good deal longer when it was originally conceived. Another interesting aspect of this footage is that it hasn’t received the colour processing that’s boosted the look of the finished film, so you see the sets in their raw form, as filmed.

Publicity & Festival Tour 2006-2007 (30m 03s): This appears to be combined footage of the various festival and publicity tours put together to promote the film, again you have the choice of watching each chapter separately or all in one go. Chapter 1 (03m 53s) starts off with a shrine visit and Q&A session with the creative team behind Sakuran: Moyoco Anno, Yuki Tanada, Mika Ninagawa, and star Anna Tsuchiya. This session appears to be the source for the festival soundbites on the 1st disc. Chapter 2 (12m 12s) is the most elaborate on-set Q&A session I’ve ever seen; Mika Ninagawa is joined by almost the entire principal cast (the only notable absentees are Hiroki Narimiya and Masatoshi Nagase) all dressed up in-character. Chapter 3 (05m 28s) switches to another Q&A session, this time with Anna and Mika at an early screening of the film. Chapter 4 (03m 19s) is footage from an extremely glitzy event, which I think was probably the film’s big pre-nationwide-release premiere. Mika, Anna and Masanobu are in attendance for the Q&A sessions here. Chapter 5 (05m 10s) is another Q&A session from another screening of the film a few days after the big glitzy event, this time with more of the principal cast onboard & out of costume. Once again Hiroki Narimiya and Masatoshi Nagase are absent, but you hardly miss them as the women are all looking gorgeous, while Kippei Shiina is trying to emote to the “youth” crowd by sporting a “trendy” haircut and one of Michael Jackson’s old red leather jackets.

If there are two things I’ve learnt from this featurette it’s that, one: Sakuran was given an impressive publicity push in the months leading up to its nationwide release, and two: Miho Kanno is the fastest talker in Japan! I think somebody should slip her a sedative before her next Q+A session!


Making Of Featurette & Production Special (35m 45s) Another feature split into segments, but only two this time (again you can choose to view them separately or all in one). The first segment is a flashy Making of Featurette (10m 33s) that features brief interviews with the creative team, including the usual conspirators like Moyoco Anno, Yuki Tanada, Mika Ninagawa, and the principal cast. What’s more noteworthy is that there’s also interview footage with singer-songwriter Ringo Shiina, who provided the music for the film. Another coup for the makers of this featurette is that they managed to get hold of actor: Hiroki Narimiya for an interview! The featurette is split up into defined segments, like Actor’s Clip, Musician’s Clip, etc, and appears to give a pretty comprehensive overview of the film’s production.

The 2nd half of this feature appears to be some sort of Production Special (25m 12s) that jumps from subject to subject a little schizophrenically. It starts with footage from the film’s premiere at the 2007 Berlin International Film Festival, then it switches into a more coherent program where we follow actress Minami Hinase as she walks through the district of Yoshiwara as it stands today. Her narration explains the history of the area and the practices of the oiran. She then goes on to visit/interview a local beautician to get her nails decorated in the oiran style. After that, it jumps back to the Berlin Film Festival, then does an interview round-up with the film’s cast, and then jumps to footage from Ninagawa’s Berlin exhibition of photos taken on the set of the film! Cult director SABU is in attendance here and gives us his opinions on Ninagawa’s work. After more footage of Tsuchiya and Ninagawa in Berlin we jump back to Minami in Yoshiwara getting pissed at a French Wine Bar- nice work if you can get it! After interviewing the sommelier, she meets up with Ninagawa to conduct a final interview before the special closes with a bunch of Germans speaking English, which is about the only part of the special that made any sense to me!

Also tucked away in this section is a tracklist of the songs that are either played on the film’s soundtrack, or in the Featurette & Special themselves.


THIS IS O-I-RA-N Featurette (19m 27s) Which I like to say aloud like “THIS IS SPARTAAAA!”, is the final section on the 2nd disc and is split into 3 segments. The 1st segment is more Berlin International Film Festival Footage (09m 24s) which takes us back to Berlin where Tsuchiya and Ninagawa are accompanied at the film’s premiere by a man who looks like Truman Capote crossed with René from Allo ‘Allo!, and a Japanese dwarf holding a tall parasol. What follows is footage from the premiere showing of Sakuran and a brief look at the post-premiere Q&A session and on-camera interviews with the two ladies (Sadly not with René Capote and the dwarf). The tour of Berlin continues with more footage from Ninagawa’s photo exhibition (where we meet SABU again) and an extended look at the ladies’ tour of Berlin’s famous landmarks.

The 2nd segment is Hong Kong Asian Film Awards Footage (05m 02s) where Ninagawa is joined by Masanobu Ando and the lovely miss Yoshino Kimura to attend the film’s premiere at the Asian Film Awards. At the start of this feature they’re interviewed in English by one of the reporters and the look of total bewilderment on Ando’s face is pretty amusing. When they eventually bring in a Japanese translator to ask him a question about the differences between the Manga and the finished film, they cut off his answer! Yoshino on the other hand appears to have a good grasp of English and speaks it rather well when she has to present an award during the ceremony. There’s a Q&A session after the awards where Yoshino gets to show off her English some more.

The 3rd segment is an Interview With Mika Ninagawa (05m 01s). This interview is more focussed on her work as a photographer and all the questions are given in English, but sadly none of the replies are translated or subtitled.

Overall

With Sakuran, Mika Ninagawa has flamboyantly burst onto the Japanese film scene in an extremely expressive and assured display of style and colour, what a shame then that the vapid, generic story and characters stop her debut film from truly excelling. Nevertheless, with style like this there remains much to enjoy from Sakuran’s excesses. Asmik Ace have delivered an excellent DVD set, providing first rate audio/video presentation with hours of extra material – unfortunately without any English subtitles.


Film
6 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
8 out of 10
Overall

6

out of 10

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