Friday, July 11, 2008

Japan Cuts: Sakuran

Like Nevada’s special “ranches,” but with culture. That is how the officially sanctioned red light quarters of pre-Meiji Restoration Japan could be described. The oiran, the exclusive courtesans of the Edo brothels, were also accomplished in music and culture, but unlike the geisha class which followed them, they were indeed participating in commerce. Young Kiyoha finds herself sold into this world in Mika Ninagawa’s Sakuran (trailer here), playing at the Japan Cuts festival this weekend.

Despite her Dickensian circumstances, Kiyoha is a spirited kid, vowing to leave when the sterile cherry tree in the pleasure house’s courtyard finally blooms. Enduring an ill-tempered oiran, Kiyoha rises in the ranks, eventually becoming the oiran herself, taking the new name of Higurashi. Yet it is affairs of the heart, rather than professional ambitions that preoccupy Kiyoha/Higurashi.

The Sakuran site quotes an oiran expression: “a thousand gawkers, a hundred customers, ten clients, and one lover.” Indeed, K/H has plenty of prospects from the former categories to fulfill the latter. However, her affection for her ultimate choice is not well established during the course of the film. Perhaps her most interesting relationship is actually with her young attendant Shigeji, breaking the cycle of abuse established by her predecessor.

Using cherry blossoms and gold fish as symbolic motifs, Sakuran is richly visual. Accompanied by a contemporary pop-rock score by Ringo Shiina, Sakuran suggests Memoirs of a Geisha filmed in the style of Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Discerning the passage of time is somewhat problematic though, as K/H matures from childhood into adulthood, while other characters do not perceptively age at all. There is also a certain childish petulance about Anna Tsuchiya’s K/H that prevents complete emotional investment in her character, but she is surrounded by a uniformly strong supporting cast, including Yoshino Kimura, also seen in Sukiyaki Western Django, as the orian with bad karma.

For those excited by the prospect of a film set entirely in a Japanese brothel, this is not exactly what you are hoping for, but you will get a few scenes reflective of what is going through your head. Though based on a manga series, it is very much an adult story. Ninagawa tries to graft a message of female empowerment onto a setting of traditional exploitation. It is not entirely successful, but Sakuran looks great making the effort. It screens Saturday and Sunday at the Japan Society.