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Ninagawa Mika's "Sakuran" is a gorgeous, vibrant and simply beautiful movie. Stunningly visual, lavish and absolutely mesmerizing.
Based on manga writer/artist Anno Moyoco's "joyosei" (young woman's) comic series "Sakuran", the story tells of a young girl sold to a brothel in the red-light district of Yoshiwara by her indifferent mother (during the late Edo period) and her struggles to adapt to life as a Oiran (courtesan).
The rebellious girl is put under the care of a beautiful Oiran, Shohi (Kanno Miho). The girl is given the name Tomeki and is trained by Shohi in the ways of becoming a great courtesan. She suffers much at the hands of her new "family" but in time becomes a "hikkomi" (prostitute).
Her increasing popularity among the various Edo clientèle soon overshadows that of the current favorite Takao (Kimura Yoshino) much to her jealous disdain. Now given the more glamorous name Kiyoha, the young courtesan (Anna Tsuchiya) struggles with life as a Oiran while trying to find true love in a fake world. Eventually she achieves her goal of becoming a Yoshiwara star and assumes the new name of Higurashi but even this long sought after goal seems unsatisfying and she longs to find her own happiness.
While comparisons to Rob Marshall's 2005 "Memoirs of A Geisha" are inevitable (Geisha are not Oiran and vice versa) especially with regards to story, I think "Sakuran" is more stylistically similar to Sofia Coppola's 2006 "Marie Antoinette". Like "Marie Antoinette", "Sakuran" is set in the past but rather than present it in a dull, drab, dated fashion, Ninagawa takes the opposite approach and presents the Edo period as a glorious spectacle of color and flamboyance. The modern rock music soundtrack, use of modern Japanese and focus on spectacular fashion also add to the similarities. This is not a historical documentation but an artistic interpretation of life at the time not unlike movies like "Samurai Fiction".
Where "Memoirs of a Geisha" played more like a flawed theatrical fairy tale seen through the eyes of foreigners ("Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" comes to mind) "Sakuran" seems like a sensual and romantic Japanese manga come to life.
Photographer turned director Ninagawa's eye for detail and skills in photography are put to great effect in "Sakuran" and it really shows on screen. The world of "Sakuran" seem almost too beautiful to be real. Cinematographer Ishizaka Takuro should also be credited with the amazing camera work.
With fabulous production designs by Iwashiro Namiko and breath taking costumes and makeup by Iga Daisuke and Sugiyama Yuko "Sakura" is a good looking film.
The screenplay by Tanada Yuki and Anno Moyoco tries its best to adapt the long manga story to film and does so admirably. Like her equally talented husband, Anno Hideaki (Evangelion, Cutie Honey Movie), Moyoco's flair for visuals do tend to overshadow the story a bit. I would have loved to see more of the mundane everyday lives of the Oiran as well as Kiyoha/Higurashi's struggles at trying to be accepted.
Rock idol/model Anna Tsuchiya is an unconventional beauty (she reminds me a lot of Christina Ricci) and is definitely very good here. While her rebel role is not all too dissimilar from her previous role in fan favorite "Shimotsuma Monogatari" (AKA Kamakazi Girls), "Sakuran" does give her more of an opportunity to display her very natural and playful acting style. I hope that she is given more roles in the future that showoff more of her acting talents as indeed it is a waste to have her type-casted in the same type of "Jajauma" character.
The modern soundtrack by Shiina Ringo (which mixed jazz, rock, pop and even cabaret) was also very good and surprisingly didn't really seem that much out of place amid the Edo era Yoshikawa setting.
"Sakuran" is definitely a surprising delight and a very good debut for Ninagawa who is certainly poised to become another shining star in the Japanese cinema world.
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