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  • Writer's pictureRobin Syversen


Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Wasted Beauty: A Critical Examination of Sakuran

Director: Miki Ninagawa

Cast: Anna Tsuchiya, Yoshino Kimura, Renji Ishibashi, Masatoshi Nagase

Related Films: Tokyo Bordello, Street of Shame, The Life of Oharu, Guilty of Romance

Studio: Ninagawa Group - Sakuran Film Committee

Year: 2007

Verdict: 2/6

It made quite a buzz when the prolific photographer Miki Ninagawa joined forces with rebel model Anna Tsuchiya to make Sakuran. But as it turned out, it took more than a keen eye for visuals and a pretty face to measure up to the titans of Japanese cinema.

Sakuran garnered significant attention in 2007 during its festival circuit run. However, despite its initial buzz, the film offered little substance and quickly faded into the background of Japan’s jidaigeki (period drama) history.

This is the tale of a film that squandered its potential by neglecting the principal elements that great films are made of. Sakuran had the looks, but its storytelling, acting, and character development were lacking. So why are we talking about it?

Despite its shortcomings, Sakuran is an interesting case study of postmodern Japanese cinema. It's a historical drama set in the Edo period, juxtaposing modern cinematography, a vivacious color palette, and a contemporary soundtrack.

Furthermore, Sakuran shed light on Japanese gender roles and sexuality but was criticized for exploiting these themes itself. We'll delve deeper into this criticism after thoroughly introducing the film's setting, story, and the hype that surrounded Sakuran.


How Sakuran Elbowed its Way to the Spotlight

The world of cinema is no stranger to hype, and just like its lackluster protagonist, Sakuran elbowed its way into the spotlight. Despite its promising premise and intriguing setting, Sakuran ultimately proved to be more style than substance.

Several factors contributed to the buzz surrounding Sakuran. Firstly, the film was directed by Mika Ninagawa, a renowned photographer celebrated for her vibrant and unique visual style. The casting of popular actress and model Anna Tsuchiya in the lead role further stoked the anticipation.

Sakuran promised a fresh take on the life of a courtesan during the Edo period, a topic frequently explored in Japanese cinema but never with such a distinctive visual flair. Adding fuel to the fire, the film's promotion on the international festival circuit raised expectations of audiences around the world.

Sakuran was screened at the 57th Berlin International Film Festival and the 31st Hong Kong International Film Festival, among others. While some praised the film's visuals and Tsuchiya's performance, it ultimately failed to deliver a compelling narrative, falling short of the high expectations it had set.

Sakuran Synopsis | The Tale of Kiyoha

Sakuran unfolds the tale of Kiyoha, a young girl sold into a brothel in Yoshiwara, the infamous red-light district of Edo. The film traces Kiyoha's journey, encapsulating her struggles, relationships, and her relentless pursuit of freedom.

As Kiyoha matures into a young woman, she evolves into one of the most sought-after courtesans in Yoshiwara. Rechristened as «Higurashi», she beguiles clients with her captivating beauty, wit, and sharp tongue. Still, she remains defiant, refusing to succumb to the rigid rules and hierarchy of the brothel.

Kiyoha yearns for a life beyond the confines of Yoshiwara. However, the brothel's strict control and the societal norms of the Edo period make escape nearly impossible. Despite her elevated status, Kiyoha remains shackled by her patrons in Yoshiwara.

Her repeated attempts to escape are further complicated by the brothel’s owner and mistress, who view Kiyoha as both an asset and a threat. As such, her longing for freedom remains but a dream, underlining the recurring theme of the courage required to defy societal expectations.

The Making of Sakuran | Courtesan Critique

Before delving into the themes and analyses of Sakuran, it's important to acknowledge its shortcomings. Although the film had its moment in the spotlight, its flaws are too significant to ignore.

Cinematography and Mise-en-scène

Let’s start with visuals, which, albeit quite breathtaking, don’t hold up all that well over time. Director Mika Ninagawa, a renowned photographer, brought a unique visual style to the film that was instantly captivating but lacked the re-watchability of other period dramas of the time, such as Twilight Samurai.

Nonetheless, Sakuran is a riot of colors, each frame resembling a meticulously composed photograph. The costumes, designed by Daisuke Iga and Yuko Sugiyama, are another highlight. The elaborate kimonos worn by the Oiran are richly detailed, contributing to the film's vivacious aesthetic.

However, the film's emphasis on aesthetic appeal compromised historical authenticity and narrative coherence. The story often feels disjointed, and the pacing is uneven, with some scenes lingering on visual details while others rush through key plot points. As such, the narrative lacks the dynamics that give many Japanese period dramas their powerful impact and longevity.

Cast and Characters

Then there’s Kiyoha, played by Anna Tsuchiya, who gave a memorable performance in Kamikaze Girls but lacked the acting prowess to make us empathize with or root for the Sakuran protagonist.

Kiyoha is portrayed as strong-willed and defiant, often clashing with the strict rules of Yoshiwara. However, her transformation into an Oiran is more of a visual spectacle than a nuanced character journey.

It seems unfair to blame Tsuchiya entirely for this, as the casting decisions and lack of character development were in Ninagawa’s hands. And her blunders extended far beyond Tsuchiya.

The supporting characters in Sakuran, including the other Oiran, the brothel's owner, and Kiyoha's maid, play crucial roles in the narrative. However, like Kiyoha, these characters often lack depth, and their interactions with Kiyoha are more plot-driven than character-driven.

As a result, the aesthetic emphasis often overshadows the characters, resulting in a narrative that, while visually impressive, lacks emotional depth and fails to engage the audience on a deeper level.

Sound and Music

The music in Sakuran, composed by Shiina Ringo, is a blend of traditional Japanese music and modern rock. It effectively mirrors the film's mix of historical setting and contemporary style, but like the visuals, it often overshadows the narrative and detracts from our immersion.

The sound effects, however, contribute nicely to the film's immersive atmosphere. The sounds of the bustling Yoshiwara district, the music of the shamisen, and the rustle of the elaborate kimonos create a rich auditory landscape that harmonizes well with Ninagawa’s vision.

The Setting and Historical Context

During the Edo period, Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, which enforced a strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, and controlled courtesan quarters known as yûkaku. The most famous yûkaku was Edo’s Yoshiwara, a licensed red-light district where courtesans, or Oiran, entertained society's elite.

The high-ranking Oiran were much more than just courtesans; they were cultural icons skilled in traditional Japanese arts such as music, dance, and calligraphy. They were the epitome of fashion and trendsetters of their time.

However, despite their high social status, Oiran were essentially prisoners of the pleasure quarters, their lives strictly controlled, and their freedom heavily restricted.

Sakuran's representation of the Edo period and the Yoshiwara district reflects history to some extent but blends facts and fiction to the benefit of artistic interpretation.

On the one hand, Sakuran effectively captures the Yoshiwara district's opulence, but on the other, it takes liberties with historical representation. For instance, the vibrant color palette is far from accurate to the period. The Edo period was marked by sumptuary laws that restricted the use of certain colors and luxurious fabrics to specific social classes.

Furthermore, the film's portrayal of the Oiran lifestyle and their interactions with clients is romanticized, glossing over the harsher realities of their lives. Though contributing to the film's unique aesthetic, these deviations detract from its historical authenticity. That said, Sakuran spoke volumes, both to our faces and «behind our backs».

Yoshiwara Whispers | Sakuran Analyses

While vibrant on the surface, Sakuran often stumbles in its attempts to delve deeper into its themes. However, what it lacks in emotional depth, it somewhat compensates for by alluding to troubling customs and provoking further discussion.

Sakuran presents a society where status and hierarchy dictate the lives of its characters. The Yoshiwara district, despite its glitz and glamour, is a microcosm of the larger Edo society, with its rigid hierarchy.

Kiyoha's journey from a maid to an Oiran is not just a personal journey but a climb up this social ladder. However, even as a top-ranking Oiran, Kiyoha is still trapped within the pleasure quarters, highlighting the limitations imposed by the hierarchical society.

The social constraints of the Edo period are a recurring theme in Sakuran. These constraints are not just societal but also personal. The characters, particularly the women in the Yoshiwara district, are bound by their roles and status. These constraints affect their actions, their relationships, and their dreams.

Objects of Desire | Sakuran’s Sexualization

Focusing on the lives of courtesans in the Yoshiwara district, Sakuran inevitably deals with themes of sexualization and objectification. It candidly shows how the Oiran were treated as commodities when displayed and paraded for the clients, their worth determined by their beauty and their ability to entertain men.

However, Sakuran's handling of these themes often blurs the line between depicting this objectification and participating in it, which has led to criticism. The film's emphasis on the Oiran's beauty and sexuality often veers into the territory of exploitation.

The elaborate costumes, the sensual performances, and the intimate scenes often feel more like a spectacle for the audience than a critique of the objectification these women faced. The imbalance between artistry and exploitation further contributes to the criticism of Sakuran as a film that prioritizes style over substance.

Comparative Analysis | Sakuran Vs. Manga and Other Films

To fully understand the criticism surrounding Sakuran, it's beneficial to compare it with the manga it was based on and other films in similar genres or with similar themes.

Sakuran is based on a manga of the same name by Moyoco Anno. At large, it retains the manga's vibrant visual style but falls short in terms of narrative depth. The manga delves deeper into Kiyoha's character and journey, providing a more nuanced portrayal of her life in Yoshiwara.

In contrast, the film's narrative often feels superficial, focusing more on the visual spectacle than character development.

Sakuran vs. Other Jidaigeki Films

Sakuran’s emphasis on aesthetics over narrative depth distinguishes it from other Japanese period dramas, but not necessarily in a positive way. Arguably, a film like Hideo Gosha’s «Yoshiwara Enjo» (Tokyo Bordello, 1987) provides a more nuanced portrayal of the lives of Oiran in Yoshiwara.

Furthermore, even though Sakuran’s juxtaposition of period drama aesthetics with modern sensibilities was a novel idea, the balance between serious storytelling and playful filmmaking was not particularly convincing.

This approach was not unlike that of Hiroyuki Nakano in his brilliant film Samurai Fiction, which juxtaposed period drama with modern film techniques and rock music in a much more satisfying manner. Perhaps if Sakuran, like Samurai Fiction, hadn't taken itself so seriously, it might have been more successful.

Final Verdict: Sakuran Review

Sakuran was a spectacle to behold when it burst onto silver screens in 2006 (2007 abroad), but in hindsight, it received more attention than it deserved. I am writing this review after attempting to re-watch the film in 2023, a task that took me more than a week to complete due to frequent breaks and re-tries caused by a loss of attention.

Yes, Sakuran is beautiful, but not in a way that warrants repeated viewings or commands our everlasting respect. It feels more like a product of its time, a pop-cultural exploit of the mid-2000s that has lost its allure since.

As for Anna Tsuchiya’s acting, she received accolades when the film was released, but her performance feels out of place upon re-watching. It might be that the lack of character development undermines her performance, but as an avid fan of Japanese period dramas, I find Tsuchiya’s portrayal of Kiyoha thoroughly underwhelming.

I’m not even sure if the visuals are as entertaining after all these years. Today, Sakuran feels stale, gaudy, and plastique, and with the initial wow factor gone, the numerous shortcomings become all the more evident. As mentioned, films like Twilight Samurai, Samurai Fiction, or the equally outrageously stylized Zatoichi (2003) grow on me with each revisit, while Sakuran continues to wither.

Despite these criticisms, Sakuran does boast magnificent costumes, impeccable set designs, and an admittedly unique atmosphere. It offers a skewed glimpse into the world of the Oiran in Yoshiwara, which might be enough to keep you entertained. Sometimes, all you want is fluff, and Sakuran might just be the most profuse fluffer in Japanese cinema ;P


Electric Sheep Magazine: Sakuran Films

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