I know I’m not alone in saying Memoirs of a Geisha annoyed the living daylights out of me. It was humorless, overwritten, fly-blown Hollywood schmaltz—half tinselly soap opera and half bogus exoticism, right down to the oh-so-sad shakuhachi flutes on the soundtrack. Talented people were involved both in front of and behind the camera, but starpower only goes so far, and Geisha’s stunt Asian casting only showed up the project all the more for being empty chintz. What did it say that none of the major female roles are played by actual Japanese, while just about all the major male roles are? That Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang and Li Gong outsell any Japanese actress you could name? Or that Hollywood still thinks actors (especially women) can still be generically and interchangeably “Asian”—which may not have been their intention, but sure feels like the end result?*
I fulminate about all this now because Sakuran is the anti-Geisha—a movie as brazen, hilarious, rollicking, on-target and emotionally honest as that other movie was incapable of being. It’s far from being forensically accurate—I seriously doubt Yoshiwara red-light houses had paper doors designed like stained-glass windows—but it’s spot-on in all the ways that matter. The best part of all is that it’s fun, in the sense that we’re seeing talented people sink their teeth into the material and play it up like they’re all getting away with something.
The story’s been adapted from Moyoco Anno’s manga of the same name (also not yet released in English), wherein little Kiyoha is sold by her mother to the Tamagikuya brothel in Edo. She’s a sullen girl, with good reason to be resentful. Selling daughters to whorehouses for fast cash was sadly commonplace in the feudal era, and so Kiyoha plans to resist being made into an oiran, a top-rank prostitute, with every fiber of her being. Her stubbornness results in one round of beatings after another, and more than a few nights spent trussed up out in front of the house. She tries to run off, only to be dragged back time and again by the long-suffering guard of the Tamagikuya, Seiji (Masanobu Ando, Space Travelers).
Over time Kiyoha discovers she is, in fact, cut out to be an oiran, and a very good one at that—much to the chagrin of the current top-ranking girl, ice-hearted Takao (Yoshino Kimura). The two of them can’t even sit in the same room together without their fangs and claws coming out, especially since Takao is convinced Kiyoha’s turned the head of her current lover/patron, the moody artist Mitsunobu (Masatoshi Nagase). She finds herself falling for a regular customer, Sojiro (Hiroki Narimiya), a gentle soul who will be almost certainly ground up and spit out in the bloodthirsty competition that rages over girls like her. Later, she’s wooed by a wealthy samurai in what seems like the best possible turn of events for her—but that only reveals to her all the more nakedly how real happiness for her has always been just under her nose, and how she needed to be more vulnerable, not less, to let the light in.
They needed a hellion to play Kiyoha, and when they cast the bristly Anna Tsuchiya they almost got two for the price of one. She was the foul-mouthed, bike-riding gangster chick in the equally brassy and heartfelt Kamikaze Girls, and here she does a great job of counterbalancing her wild side with the kind of demure façade that her character would need to cultivate against her own better wishes. She devours every scene she’s in, but it doesn’t feel like showboating: the story needs someone this raucous to give it a linchpin around which to revolve properly. I was reminded, obliquely enough, of John Sayles’s movie Passion Fish, where an actress (May McDonnell) ends up in a wheelchair but over time becomes a feisty, punchy incarnation of life’s resilience instead of an object of pity. The two movies couldn’t be more dissimilar in subject matter, tone, presentation and especially look-and-feel, but they share a common element: A woman is shut up in a cage of circumstance, and fights her way out of it with bitter humor and stubborn pride.
Director Mika Ninagawa is nominally a photographer, and it shows in the fine-grained control she has over the lighting and camera movements—something I saw (and liked) in fellow lensman Anton Corbjin’s Control. Normally this kind of merciless precision smothers the life out of a film, but here it combines with the feisty storytelling and complements it. There isn’t a shot, a frame, a sequence that isn’t either fun to watch, lovely to look at, or achingly sad to take in. Even the most obvious bit of symbolism—the cutaways to the goldfish in their bowls, as trapped as these girls are—works in a way that’s somehow both cheeky and poignant at the same time. And the score isn’t all twangy kotos and melancholy strings, but a bouncy jazz-rock amalgam that brings to mind a raucous Broadway show like Chicago.
A while back I reviewed Mikio Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, a movie also about women stuck in the thankless, loveless job of providing smiles and companionship (although not sex in this case) for men. The worst thing about the job, that film suggested, was that it destroyed not only opportunities for real affection but the capacity for giving and receiving it in the first place. Sakuran is about that, too, but it’s not a downer—instead, it attacks the heartlessness of the whole sordid business with humor and fire and, well, girl power.
Footnote: A couple of years ago, Content Japan (a sublicensor for films) had a booth at the New York Anime Festival where they screened clips from several films they were seeking distribution deals for. Among them was the live-action Mushishi, which found a home through FUNimation. Sakuran was another, and is still looking for a home. Someone needs to fix that.
* This paragraph will serve as the entirety of my review for that film.