Updated April 3, 2014 🙂 All these captures from the film enlarge when clicked on ❤
Sakuran (2006) is the most riotously color-full film I have ever seen. The kaleidoscopic backdrops are enough for me to like this movie. Its soundtracks are as engaging (Ringo Shiina’s album Heisei Fuuzoku = Japanese Manners). Most of them sound celebratory, some are as defiant as courageous splashes of adolescent rebelliousness, and at the correct times so mournful that they transport me back to reality all the way to the tears.
It is based on a manga, one which I have not read and so I have no points of reference other than the little that I know of Japan like its woodwork, clothing, paper walls, woodblock prints, communal bath, ground drenched by rain-pour, a field of cherry trees in bloom, a stiff sense of honor and shame. It was a very enlightening tour into a past life yet also instructive of norms that prevail. Sakuran will not pale against any comics-rendition of the life of an independent-willed girl sold and reared in a pleasure district of feudal Japan, in a courtesan house.
This is not a film for those who see all women entertainers, past and present, who dress up and perform roles like that of the geishas of today as nothing but just dispensable prostitutes. If it is approached with this mindset then the film will be reduced into just another commercial project, having profit as the worshiped purpose. The foundational but covered-up elements of soul-captivity and abandonment of alternative life choices will get trampled under the power of the intent to titillate. The heroine in this film represents those who constantly rage against their caged fate — it is her refusal to be dampened that always gets her in trouble with the others and it is around this characteristic of hers that the story revolves.
For a fact, there are distinctions between Japanese women entertainers of the past and geishas of today, and other classifications I am not familiar with. This can most likely be easily surfed in the net (see the added note * below). There are those that were termed as courtesans, which connote sexual involvement, whereas geishas are professional entertainers, very expensive, very strictly trained in the well-defined structure of the traditional Japanese arts. Entertainers such as the geisha are living icons of entrenched Japanese ideals, expressions of a unique worldview set in studied harmony. They are breathing windows into a world where many would like to be but couldn’t. They are 3-D picture frames, animated paintings, enfleshed music. Though this film may not lead us down into the depths of a courtesan’s introspections it does form a bridge with which we are allowed to see a glimpse of the richness of souls inhabiting a so-called “floating world”. (added 1March14: There’s the film Yoshiwara Enjo, which is also called Tokyo Bordello, set in the 20th century that treats issues related to the floating world with more depth than Sakuran does. There’s also a legend going by the term Oiran Abyss or Oiran Edge that tells of several courtesans’ tragic fate, but I still haven’t looked this up.)
If there is one fault in the film it is that the main character has too pretty a face, a potential distraction from the seriousness of the running themes. But when seen against the fact that this is a real-life rendering of a manga heroine, Kiyoha, then the choice is perfect. Anna Tsuchiya does give Kiyoha a distinctive persona, one that is a bit different from the rest. Moreover, she does not hesitate to move the appropriate facial muscles, and admirably too, to generate the range of emotions felt by either Kiyoha the tigress, or Kiyoha the kitten and several more.
In this film is where I first saw Masanobu Ando, as Seiji, who is among my favorite heroes. Seiji is not a man of expressive passions. His role is that of a dedicated and upright businessman and overseer of the establishment. He has to have eyes at the back of his head for Kiyoha though, because he has learned early on that she is not the meek conformist. Nevertheless Kiyoha has a higher regard for him than for the house’s owners, who in turn trust him in his ability to peacefully handle her. Kiyoha’s personal little girl apprentice addresses him in honorifics, as Seiji-dono (whereas its equivalent would be Seiji-sama nowadays).
For the fans of Oguri Shun, I assure you that you’ll see his face here within a span of 10 seconds only, but it’s a face that will surprise and delight you. He made the most of the 10 seconds to make a very unforgettable appearance.
Kiyoha’s last glimpse of her hometown was with the cherry blossoms, sakura, lining the road as a madam hurries her to her new house. She enters the gates of the red district at night, when all the lanterns along the main street are lit and she, the little girl, is just as appreciative of the sights as she was with the sakura. But not for long she gets fed up with the all-women company within the enclosure and she develops the perpetual urge to run away, which she does attempt sometimes. Women can be bitches to girls who have complexes — usually girls, or any human, will not run away from where there is warmth. Plus, she misses the sakura. Seiji, who was already a young adult by then, catches up with her at a little shrine in the district during one of these flight urges. In this shrine stands a forlorn cherry tree that has never bloomed even once. He placates her and promises to take her out of the enclosure once this tree shows a flower. In fact, no sakura has ever bloomed within this entire pleasure district.
Kiyoha grows up retaining her independent spirit. She scratches and growls whenever she is wronged. She does not guard her speech or her actions as rigidly as the other girls do. She has become a streamlined rebel, conforming yet apart. Then her heart gets broken by a puppy of a man. Seiji supports her as she adds more rigidity to her back. She goes on with living, generously giving affection to whomever she likes — to little trainee entertainers, to elderly or penniless clients — she does not discriminate, and being nasty to those who violate the common codes of courtesy.
She gets pregnant by an anonymous father, then loses the baby. Seiji nurses her like a mother throughout her pain, staying up beside her bed. As she mourns for her baby Seiji’s surrender to their separate fates is palpable. Seiji was born of a “whore”, of an unknown father, and his conversation with her was analogous to a declaration of a non-obsessive love. When she woke up in the middle of the night, still physically weak, she covers the now sleeping Seiji with her blanket and then goes out to seek peace at the shrine. There only the bright moon could see and hear her, in her midnight blue kimono with a print like that of distant galaxies. Seiji tracks her down. He feels her pain and he stays put like the nearby cherry tree as he catches her sobbed surrender to a loss so great she felt like her breath was being drawn from out of her. Seiji comforts her like a father or a brother or a sister would.
They have a strong but well-guarded bond. Kiyoha is the head courtesan, Higurashi the Oiran, the main reason why their business flourishes. Seiji is the house’s chosen heir and is soon to be married to the owners’ niece. In his heart he would rather have Kiyoha, but, shikataganai, he cannot. It cannot be helped. Convention, duty, and gratitude to the couple who reared him and supported his mother prevent this. A samurai falls in love with Higurashi, puts a forest of blooming cherry trees all over the district, formally and publicly announces his intention to marry her, being rich enough to give the house the amount to offset their loss of her to him. But in her heart she’d rather have Seiji. Similarly, shikataganai, it cannot be helped. She is but a bought woman bound to the rules of the house, and a powerful samurai must not be embarrassed.
Kiyoha and Seiji, on the last of the evenings she’ll be at the house, speak their goodbyes and well wishes to each other by subdued glances and short words. No drama. No fanfare. No lingering exchanges. Their faces, softly lit in this late night, spoke loudly enough in the stillness and in the helplessness of it all.
The following morning while the fog has not yet lifted Kiyoha arrives almost breathless at the little shrine. Her face lifts a smile. There Seiji stands, staring up at the tree. A desperate storm is raging in their separate lives but they greet each other as if each day in the world will always turn out bathed in golden sunrise. Then surprise. A gift.
Domo arigato gozaimashita, Sakuran. An adolescent who is attentive of life will easily understand the plot. But most likely it will take one who has truly lived and loved to sense the delicate layers of this fairytale-like story. A non-Japanese will, of course, perceive many of the themes differently, like possibly being confused that the oiran (an artist as well as a courtesan) is more highly regarded than the geisha (strictly an artist only)*.
In the end one of its general messages could be that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to get hold of a happiness that is outside the bounds of convention. And faith, too. As Kiyoha’s first lover told her before he died, “There can’t be a cherry tree that doesn’t flower.” However, there are different sorts of conventions to be basing happiness on. Seiji’s & Kiyoha’s family in the house think they have chosen the foolish way but for me, one from the audience, I concur with them. Seiji has forever been witnessing Kiyoha raging against the world that is full of suffering, as she herself described it in one of their dialogues.
“World” meaning where she finds herself now and from which there seems to be no escape. Seiji, too, may have silently raged against the way his entire life has been, and will henceforth be, tied to the house where his mother once worked. They are like the two goldfishes living in just a few handfuls of water. Happily for them they dared that there is life outside the gilded cage (though none for the poor fishes outside the bowl). Sometimes, too, happiness is just a matter of timing, or that only those who look out for it will catch it as it passes by.
*added 1March14: Thanks to the page http://www.kawaiistudyjapan.com/?p=197 I now know that sakuran means confusion. Indeed, almost each frame is a riot to the eyes. It’s right on the film’s theme: Kiyoha’s life is surrounded by a confusion of flamboyance and artifices; she herself constantly fights to stave off confusion in her thoughts and feelings; there’s an aquarium stuck on top of the Yoshiwara’s gate defying/mocking the fishes’ inability to be suspended in air, although its primary message would have to be “captivity”.
PART TWO. …half of the story retold in pictures…