Sakuran (Mika Ninagawa, 2006)

“A delicious manga-slash-J-pop twist on the geisha story.” – Matthew Turner, VIEW LONDON

Drafthouse Films LogoSakuran follows the ascent of Kiyoha (Anna Tsuchiya) a rebellious and feisty girl sold to a brothel in the notorious Yoshiwara district of Edo (now Tokyo); a nightlife zone that served both the elites and working classes for hundreds of years.  Kiyoha, headstrong and independent, rises through the ranks of the competitive brothel, initially as a house girl of an established courtesan, learning the trade and eventually becoming Oiran – the preeminent courtesan of the brothel.  Choosy about her customers and defiant to her employers and fellow courtesans, Kiyoha wants to find her own freedom rather than have a rich merchant buy it for her.  Adapted from the Manga comic series by Moyoco Anno and directed by acclaimed fashion photographer Mika Ninagawa with music by J-pop idol Ringo Shiina, Sakuran is a tour de force of new Japanese film and music talent.

Special Features:

  • Audio commentary with director Mika Ninagawa, producer Mitsuru Uda, and actors Anna Tsuchiya and Masanobu Ando
  • Behind the Scenes documentary of the film’s production
  • Making of featurette with cast and crew interviews
  • Production Special reviewing Sakuran‘s debut at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival
  • Publicity and Festival tour 2006-2007, a collection of publicity tour and film festival Q&A sessions
  • This is O-I-RA-N featurette presenting footage of the film at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival and the Hong Kong Asian Film Awards, as well as an interview with the director
  • Deleted scenes
  • Theatrical trailers, teasers, and TV spots
  • 16-page booklet of photos, production stills, and promotional materials

“Cherry Blossom” Edition – Package Includes:

  • Sakuran on Blu-ray or Standard DVD featuring over 4 hours of bonus material
  • High quality 720p HD Digital Download of the Film
  • Instant Download of the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Ringo Shiina in Apple MP4
  • 27″ x 40″ theatrical poster
  • Limited Edition “Courtesan Pipe”
  • Moyoco Anno’s original Manga graphic novel Sakuran, published by Vertical Inc.

For those unfamiliar with Japanese fashion photographer Mika Ninagawa, the easiest comparison can be made to American commercial photographer David LaChapelle.  Yet while the candy-coloured surrealism of LaChappelle’s music videos has not extended to his film work (being limited to documentary portraits of krumping), Ninagawa’s vibrant aesthetic has been a key component to her still blossoming cinema career.  Her debut film Sakuran, an adaptation of Moyoco Anno’s popular manga, is a lush and vibrant portrait of brothel life in 18th century Japan.  Ninagawa, along with cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka, craft an exquisitely composed, near-blindingly colourful, and goldfish-obsessed feast for the eyes.  Sakuran‘s constant goldfish are a simple metaphor for life in the brothel; that a courtesan, much like the goldfish that reverts back to a carp when removed from its bowl and released into the wild, can only remain beautiful in the highly artificial world she occupies.  Ninagawa’s photographic skills creates an environment in the brothel that is sumptuous beyond what could exist in reality or be naturally perceived by the human eye.

It would be a mistake, however, to perceive Ninagawa’s masterful compositions and visual flair as having only superficial value.  Critics of Sakuran suggest that the film’s eye candy appearance obscures its hollow centre.  In fact, the brothel’s beyond colorful environment is a narrative choice, as scenes outside the Yoshiwara district distinctly lack the intense unreality of the brothel and are instead shown as muddy and almost monochromatic.  The beauty of Kiyoha and her world is artificial, at least based on how beauty is conceived through most of the film, and Ninagawa’s aesthetic overloads that unreality in each frame.  The excessive force of Ninagawa’s visuals leave themselves open for criticism as overcompensations for a meager story or distractions from the central character study, but the overwhelming power of Sakuran‘s visuals is key, demonstrating the dominating and oppressive power of the brothel over its courtesans, trapping them in a gilded cage to be idolized until a wealthy merchant’s son plucks them from it and replace it with his own.  If it’s somehow too much to look at, it’s because it is.

Sakuran boasts strong performances, including Ando Masanobu as the brothel’s clerk and Oshino Kimura as Kiyoha’s oiran predecessor, but the film’s standout is, of course, Anna Tsuchiya as Kiyoha.  Western audiences may not appreciate the reflexivity of Tsuchiya’s casting.  Having a Japanese mother and America father of Polish ancestry, Tsuchiya has a unique appearance and quickly rose to prominence as an ad model while just a teenager.  She physically stands out from the other actresses in Sakuran, drawing audience attention simply by appearing on screen, but it is her demeanour and that glare that captivates.  Moving on from modelling to singing and acting, Tsuchiya became a popular figure in Japanese pop culture who consistently courted controversy with drunken interviews, violent brawls, and open derision of other public figures.  While this enfant terrible may have softened in more recent years, the associations Tsuchiya brings to Kiyoha of rebelliousness and stridency as both a necessary quality for fame and a required method for surviving that fame are key to appreciating Sakuran in full.

A brief comment should also be made of J-pop star Ringo Shiina’s exciting score.  Often placed in dissonance alongside Ishizaka’s lush imagery and Ninagawa’s wrought narrative, Shiina’s dazzling soundtrack veers between pop, rock, jazz, and bossa nova.  While Sakuran is often cited as what Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall, 2005) ought to have been, Shiina’s contemporary score frequently connects Ninagawa’s film to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006).  To the extent that Sakuran can lose its narrative pace, its music provides a frequent source of energy, invention, and unpredictability.

Sakuran PosterSakuran claims a surprising variety of promotional art generally and theatrical posters specifically.  This image, of Kiyoha in side view against the green dragon mural, seems to be the film’s most iconic promotional image.  I’m particularly fond of this design for a cover treatment because of a very contemporary title font decidedly unlike that usually expected for a Japanese period film.

Credits:  The cover summary is broadly derived from what I believe is the cover summary on the UK release.  The special features are all taken from the 2-disc Japanese DVD edition (excepting the booklet).

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