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Theme Tuesday - Sakuran

For January, I will be exploring the works of Japanese female directors as part of my 2018 resolution to watch more films by female directors (more than fifty percent of films watched to be precise).


If any film were begging to be an anime, it would have to be Sakuran. In fact, this movie was based on a manga by Moyoco Anno (another female writer). I feel it was live-action probably because the producers wanted to make a more widely accessible film, because even in Japan, adult-oriented anime is a niche item. Sakuran follows Kiyoha (Anna Tsuchiya) who is sold as a child to a house in the red-light district of Yoshiwara. She is a fierce, stubborn child, which leads to many beatings from the domineering courtesans and oirans (basically the highest class of prostitute) but also contributes greatly to her meteoric rise to the best oiran in the business.

Sakuran was directed by first-time director Mika Ninagawa, a famous photographer known for her stunning explosion of color combined with a heightened artificiality.

Ninagawa clearly brought the same sensibility to this film. Every shot looks like one of her photographs. It frankly gets a little exhausting and ceases to be dynamic after the first 15 minutes once you have gotten accustomed to the aesthetic. It is also clear that she does not quite have a grasp of film grammar since her movement and pacing do not do much to serve the narrative. This is a shame because animes, which again this should have been, live and die by their editing, since so many shots would be static and uninteresting without good direction and editing. And while the music by Ringo Sheena (a female musician!) is great on its own, it is definitely shoehorned into this film since it came from a preexisting album. In fact, the film gets dangerously close to an exercise in self-indulgence and lack of control.

Thank goodness Ninagawa has Anna Tsuchiya. The half-Polish, half-Japanese actress is naturally charismatic and her performance as Kiyoha as a canny yet flawed woman grounds the film. She can bend most men around her pinky, yet she is definitely prone to pettiness and cattiness. In all of her scenes with men, I always thought she was the one in power and dictating the terms of the encounter. In fact, an oiran tells Kiyoha early on that the best oiran can make a man do what she wants while making him think it is his idea. She is not just tough as nails though. She is also vulnerable and we believe her when she falls in love with a man with no big prospects. It is only more devastating when she makes harshly pragmatic decisions because we know it is a struggle for her.

In more experienced hands, this film could have been great, and there are so many fantastic individual elements in this film. It would be interesting to see if Ninagawa did indeed get better as a filmmaker after this interesting, if not super-promising debut.

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