Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

Billed as the “anti-Memoirs Of A Geisha”, this period piece on a pop-video departure finds brasher subject matter in the tale of a feisty courtesan determined to win her freedom from the Yoshiwara pleasure district in Edo era Tokyo. Despite bearing some of the hallmarks of a fairytale, Sakuran incorporates enough twists and turns in the delivery to resist being labelled formulaic.

The film is unquestionably a vehicle for Tsuchiya Anna, whose quixotic heroine Kiyoha (later to be named Higurashi) is supremely alluring and sympathetic. Sold into slavery in one of the many brothels of Yoshiwara as a child, and quickly initiated into the continuous feline brawl for the top spot of ‘oiran’, Kiyoha refuses to play ball with her keepers. She runs away, shuns the patrons, and picks fights with her ‘sisters’ in public. One minute she’s dangling a cigarette holder from her painted mouth and rolling those huge eyes at her clients, and the next hurling obscenities (and blows) at anyone who tries to make a fool out of her.

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Flitting effortlessly between gutter-mouthed tomboy and silken-tongued siren, Tsuchiya also has the range to portray Kiyoha as a credible mother and sister figure. Steeped in sexuality for the first hour and a half, the film’s tone becomes more familial, and more about friendship in the final stages. A romp it may be, but there’s more than a hint of the bleak and essential reality of life as a woman (or indeed a man) in Yoshiwara - sold as a child, sold again, repeatedly, as an adult, and for the lucky ones the reprieve of being sold again, into the alternate bondage of marriage.

The battles, flirtations and seductions all take place against a kaleidoscopic background, and are often frozen for a moment or two in delicately arranged tableaux, showing off Ninagawa’s exceptional eye for composition. Though the pace is leisurely, the colour saturated mise-en-sc.ene propels the film forward. The sumptuous screens and kimonos; fluttering cherry blossoms and goldfish (a recurrent symbol of Kiyoha’s captivity) are arresting, while a perfectly pitched J-pop soundtrack rounds off Ninagawa’s vision of the ‘floating world’.

Sakuran gets the balance between surface and substance just right: executed with style and confidence, it offers one of the most captivating screen heroines you’ll see this year.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2008
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Japanese period drama about a rebellious courtesan.
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Director: Ninagawa Mika

Writer: Anno Moyoko, Tanada Yuki

Starring: Tsuchiya Anna, Ando Masanobu, Kanno Miho, Narimiya Hiroki

Year: 2006

Runtime: 111 minutes

Country: Japan


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