|2006 Japan Sakuran|
It's not that the story is bad or unimportant, it's that everything else about the film screams "Look at me! Look at me!" The sets and costuming, the soundtrack, and the casting of a mixed-race Polish/Japanese version of Courtney Love in the lead role all go against type. And one cannot help but notice that this is not Memoirs of a Geisha. Insight from the nearly sixty second montage of naked female breasts near the beginning of the film might be missed if one doesn't notice that the director Mika Ninagawa, the art director Namiko Iwashiro, the music director Ringo Shiina, the producer Chikako Nakabayashi, the scriptwriter Yuki Tanada, and the artist of the original manga Moyoco Anno are all women.
The film is beautiful to look at, if a little over-indulgent at times. No attempt is made to be true to the period. I don't speak Japanese, and subtitles are always deficient in nuance, but I'm sure the dialog is straight off the streets of contemporary Tokyo and not in any Edo period parlance. I'm not generally a fan of costume dramas or period pieces so on the one hand I was interested in seeing this modernized production, but on the other hand I felt a sense of incongruity while watching it. The bold colors of the sets and costumes didn't bother me but the soundtrack is a little odd. Not so much in the style—which swims through many modern genres of pop, rock, and jazz—as in the reverb. The music often doesn't sound like it is in the same size room as the action that is taking place. I like Ringo Shiina's music, have a few of her solo CDs and those of Tokyo Jihen, the band she also plays in. It's not that I think the music is bad, or that it is too terribly out of place. I think the sound design could have been better, and I think that some of the folks who find the soundtrack a little jarring would be less put off by it if more attention had been paid to the overall sound design.
Finally, I was not won over by Anna Tsuchiya in the lead role. I'm sure casting her was a well-thought out conscious decision by the director and I also, in theory, think she fits the package the director was trying to deliver. It's not that she doesn't look 'traditionally' Japanese, whatever that is. And it's not that she lacks a certain elegance I've come to expect of these types of characters, although I'm not surprised by the omission of her doing any of the arty things these pre-geisha geisha types were supposed to be fluent in like music, poetry, dancing, or witty conversation. It might be that she just isn't a very good actress. These rock star cum actress types often possess great charisma that passes itself off as good acting in the right context. I'm not sure this is one of them. I hope I haven't spoiled it for potential viewers by bringing up Courtney Love, but that's what it felt like to me, a little vulgar and somewhere between disappointing and distracting. Tsuchiya is a lot more attractive in her own musical environment than she is in this film. I just didn't buy her as a sophisticated beauty who rises to the top. Maybe I'm just upset that Yoshino Kimura is given short-shrift in the fake eyelash department or that the truly beautiful and engaging Miho Kanno is dispatched with too early in the film.
Summary: If ever a film could sashay, it would be Sakuran. Helmed by first-time director Ninagawa Mika, Sakuran is a gorgeously luscious period film set in the Edo period courtesan district of Yoshiwara. Ninagawa brings her photographer's eye to the big screen, and the result is a film bursting with vibrant energy, unabashed sexuality, and an exuberant passion for life. Straying from convention, the film features a pop rock soundtrack from Shiina Ringo and an almost over-the-top beauty with its flamboyant kimonos and theatrically vibrant palette.
Drawing from Anno Moyoco's original manga, Ninagawa vividly paints the life and times of the courtesan in all its colors - laughter and tears, excitements and banalities, simple dreams and complex emotions. In showing both the reveled and the reviled, the film stays refreshingly free of sweeping statements about prostitution, and instead lets the characters speak for themselves. Tsuchiya Anna of Kamikaze Girls stars as the film's feisty heroine, and she brings to the role a brash attitude and bold sex appeal that cinema sees too little of.
Alongside Tsuchiya is an illustrious supporting cast including Kimura Yoshino (Nezu no Ban), Ando Masanobu (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A), Narimiya Hiroki (Last Quarter), Kanno Miho (Dolls), and Shiina Kippei (Shinobi). Brought to the brothels as a child, rebellious Kiyoha (Tsuchiya Anne) stands out even as a young girl, repeatedly talking back, challenging authority, and running away. Her brazen streak stays with her as she grows up to be a sassy straight-talking courtesan with a quick temper and a natural knack for her job. Taking her first patron at the age of 17, she hurls forward without looking back, as she fends off rivalries and rises to the top status of oiran. From the men who come in and out of her life - first love Sojiro..