Reviewed by Chris MaGee
A young girl is sold to a geisha house in the Yoshiwara, old Edo’s (Tokyo’s) red light district. The girl, now renamed Kiyoha, has no interest in becoming a courtesan and tries to run away, but is always found and brought back. Shohi (Miho Kanno), the oiran, the most prestigious courtesan in the house, doesn’t understand why Kiyoha wants to escape and uses the goldfish that swim in a tank built into the gate to the Yoshiwara as an example; these fish can only be beautiful if they stay trapped in their bowl. As soon as they are released into open waters they grow into ugly carp. The image of the goldfish starts Mika Ninagawa’s 2006 manga adaptation “Sakuran” and continues right through to its end, following Kiyoha as she grows up and uses her lessons in music, dance, and of course pleasuring her male clients to rise to the top of the competitive and often cruel “world of women” that she finds herself trapped in. Along the way a lord, a rich samurai and the illegitimate son of a courtesan all vie for her affections.
Now, if you think this sounds a little, or maybe a lot, like Rob Marshall’s big screen adaptation of Arthur Golden’s blockbuster bestseller “Memoirs of a Geisha” you’d be forgiven. It is, and not just in similarities of plot and characters, but in the liberties it takes with historical details. The big difference though is that “Memoirs” stretched the truth to the breaking point to sell Western audiences on the exotic East, but Ninagawa uses sumptuous costume design, cinematography and a jazzy soundtrack by Ringo Shiina to push the story of the geisha into the closest I’ve seen to a live action anime. Frame after frame is packed with detail and bold primary colours making this one of the most beautiful colour films I’ve ever seen. Even half-Russian actress Anna Tsuchiya, who growls and pouts through her performance as Kiyoha, has the huge doe eyes of an anime heroine.
Despite the lush look and the all-star cast that is rounded out with names like Masanobu Ando, Renji Ishibashi, and Kenichi Endo “Sakuran” ultimately suffers more from its similarities to “Memoirs” than its differences. Even though the story doesn’t gloss over the hard truth that these women are prostitutes we’re still served up a Jane Austen-like plot about a hooker with a heart of gold whose one dream is to find her Mr. Right to “redeem” her from a life of servitude.
If you’re looking for an original film about the world of the geisha then you may want to pass on “Sakuran”, but if all you want is to be dazzled by astounding visuals then run and track down a screening or a DVD copy of this film! You won’t go wrong in that department.