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.
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!
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.