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Oiran So Far Away: Making sense of Mika Ninagawa's Sakuran

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, May 31, 2009 12:23pm | Post a Comment
Want candy but concerned about empty calories? I had been looking forward to seeing Mika Ninagawa's candy-colored film adaptation of the manga Sakuran for quite some time and, like a child hypnotized by sugar-filled display cases at the confectionary house, I had become quite sure of its deliciousness before I had a chance to taste the rainbow, so to speak. 


There was no doubt in my mind that this film could be anything but great. The recipe seems flawless: director Ninagawa's photographic vision delightfully compares to the eye-popping, richly colored superworld of noted fashion photographer David LaChapelle, sultry J-pop songstress Shiina Ringo lends her musical caress to the soundtrack, and actress Anna Tsuchiya, an ex-model turned J-pop strumpet who stole the show as a teenage biker girl gangbanger in Kamikaze Girls, seemed like the perfect sort of rough 'round the edges, streetwise prima ballerina to play the rebellious-yet-kept lady of the night lead character trapped in the red light of Sakuran.
anna tsuchiya in mika ninagawa's sakuran
Though we never learn her true name, the story follows a young girl sold to a house of ill-repute in the notorious Yoshiwara district of Edo, a "pleasure quarters" area of what is now known as modern day Tokyo. We watch this girl grow up learning about womanhood, sex, and the art of allure and deception, as it pertains to prostitution, from her working-girl housemates and mama-san handler. (It should be mentioned here that there is a surprising mini-montage of various angles and close-ups of breasts and nipples during a bathhouse scene that caused me to verbally chasten my television for revealing such an unexpected anatomical expose.) The girl is given the name 'Kiyoha' and, armed with what we are supposed to understand as sort of preternatural understanding of "desire," hers becomes the name on everyone's lips whether whispered passionately by admirers or spat out like venom in hatred. This leads to great fame and high, ahem, society for Kiyoha as she eventually makes the move from nobody "new girl" to celebrity oiran, a sort of esteemed courtesan who gets to parade around town in fabulously lofty footwear. Drama!
anna tsuchiya in mika ninagawa's sakuran
The infallible foundation and sturdy framework of the film is not the story, but rather the luscious scenery; the visuals satisfy cherry-pie like cravings while the tepid plot-points weaken the elastic of your undergarments like carbohydrate loading minus the burn. It doesn't help that the story is a familiar one. Many folks draw comparisons between Sakuran and Memoirs of a Geisha and, to a lesser extent, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. It's true Sakuran shares a similar story line to that of Memoirs, but I believe it is the better film for two reasons. First, the cinematograpic orgasmatron that Sakuran flaunts is colorfully, texturally and artfully way above and beyond anything showcased in Memoirs, including that crazy, cathartic dance scene. Second, I've always had trouble with movies that are dripping wet with a specific "other" cultural fragrances yet cast actors for convenient English speaking roles (the artistic biopic Frieda starring Salma Heyak comes to mind); Why? Is it too much to ask of an American audience to check out some subtitles? Too much trouble getting the production staff on the same page linguistically? (Sorry to digress Arsenio Hall-style, but I'll forever store this phenomenon in the things that make you go "hmmm" file.) Sakuran may be just another "geisha" picture, but it's got wicked style enough to make the 110 minutes you'll sit basking in it worth your time.anna tsuchiya rocks some tall shoes in mika ninagawa's sakuran

As for the comparisons to Marie Antoinette, the blemish shared by the two films is glaring, unfortunate and, in my opinion, ready to freaking pop --- pun intended. Both films have strong, pop-rock derived soundtracks and that's all fine and groovy, but I must say that there were times where I wanted to accuse the music of purposefully bad acting. I could point to many scenes in Sakuran where Shiina Ringo's music, music I really like, just doesn't work. I can totally understand choosing Ringo as the musical director for such a film, however, as she has made it obvious throughout her musical career that the subject matter of a film like Sakuran is right up her alley. But just imagine, if you please, a jazzy bossanova number with carefree vocal warbling accompanying a painfully emotional, tear-filled breakthrough on a muddy riverbank. How can anyone, any dramatic character make a serious attempt to harness and portray raw humanism when the music playing in the background demands an up-tempo dance number? Like juicy meat clinging to rickety bones, Marie Antoinette relies just as heavily on costume, set dressing and ephemeral, nature-themed vignettes to pull together a skimpy story and obtuse musical meandering, but Sakuran suffers more for its total presentation. Though it goes against everything the film wants you to understand, it would be perfectly understandable to watch this film on mute and enjoy it. 
anna tsuchiya in mika ninagawa's sakuran
But what a shame it would be to miss out on everything that was said, even if you wouldn't understand it without subtitles. Anna Tsuchiya's raspy voice is charming, and a lot of the incidental music is good, not to mention the bonafide Shiina Ringo hits that snuck into the film in various musical disguises (it's not that all the music contrasts with the film in an unflattering way, it's just the moments when the music clashes with a scene that potentially puts one's patience on trial). And then there's the look, I could go on and on about the exquisiteness --- I love it! Overall I was happy with what I saw and I discovered more than one delicious color story that I never figured would turn me on. Now, if there were a hair story to be told of the film I think it would sound a lot like the lyrics to Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." I'm getting carried away. Anyway, I think I've said enough; If I can't convince anyone to see Sakuran despite its deficiencies, then maybe these candy-coated visuals will:
anna tsuchiya as kiyoha in mika ninagawa's sakuran
mika ninagawa's sakuran
mika ninagawa's sakuran
mika ninagawa's sakuran
anna tsuchiya in mika ninagawa's sakuran
anna tsuchiya in mika ninagawa's sakuran

Relevant Tags

Japanese Film (1), Mika Ninagawa (1), Anna Tsuchiya (2), Sakuran (1), Shiina Ringo (3), Memoirs Of A Geisha (1)