Film: Sakuran

21 November, 2009


I seem to be on a Japanese drama and film binge. I cannot seem to get enough of the stuff. And it doesn’t help that you can watch so much Japanese TV (from the new to the very nostalgic 80s stuff from my childhood) with a click of your mouse pad. But, I’ve been eyeing Sakuran for a while now since it was first released in 2007. There was a lot of publicity, and although I hadn’t seen any of Tsuchiya Anna’s work at that time, I have since watched Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) which I really liked. The costumes, the visuals and the soundtrack (especially the main song by Shiina Ringo) of Sakuran all drew me to the film. Plus I was also watching a lot of Ōoku (or Oh-Oku), a Japanese historical drama series about the great interior of the Shogun’s palace where the women resided and into which only the Shogun could enter. It was riveting stuff with lavish costumes, traps and manipulative women all vying for love and power.


Based on a manga by Anno Moyoko, Sakuran follows the tale of Kiyoha who is sold to Tamagikuya, a brothel in Yoshiwara, the pleasure quarter in Edo (old Tokyo) frequently depicted in the ukiyo-e of some of Japan’s most famous artists such as Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai. Once in, no woman can leave unless they have paid off their debt or their contract bought out by a client. Kiyoha resolves to leave one day when the sakura blossoms in Yoshiwara where there are no cherry trees except for one gnarled stump. She becomes a successful courtesan eventually becoming an oiran, the highest level courtesan in the pleasure quarter. Sakuran is a play on the word oiran (made up of the two kanji for flower and best/first) which substitutes the word for flower with cherry blossom (sakura). So oiran becomes sakuran.

The feel of the film was in keeping with Shimotsuma Monogatari with its technicolour brilliance and a very modern soundtrack courtesy of Shiina Ringo. The directorial debut of photographer Ninagawa Mika, Sakuran is a very pop and slick film, yet it manages to retain the poignancy and bittersweet edge from which you cannot totally escape when telling the tale of an oiran. Kiyoha is such a strong character yet has a vulnerability which keeps you hoping that one day she will find happiness. You want her to succeed even within the harsh and confined world of Yoshiwara.

I loved this film. It was cool and beautiful yet pulsating with energy. It’s a film about longing, and Tsuchiya Anna’s portrayal of Kiyoha is a mixture of charm, coquettishness and sorrow and is wonderful to watch. And did I mention how divine Ando Masanobu is? As well as his killer looks, his character Seiji reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr. Thornton. Enough said.

And finally, the difference between an oiran and geisha is explained here.

You can see the trailer for Sakuran here.

Shimotsuma Monogatari

Just a quick note for those in the UK, the Japanese film Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) will be on Film 4 today at 11:15pm. Watch it if you can!

Shimotsuma Monogatari

I watched this film a few weeks ago and was totally bowled over. It had been on my radar for a number of years now since its release in 2004, but I wasn’t particularly drawn to it as I had no interest in the gothic lolita trend that was sweeping Japan and slowly travelling to the West. But Shimotsuma Monogatari was a bright, funny and poignant film about friendship, fitting in and chasing your dreams.

The style of the film is similar to that of director Tetsuya Nakashima’s subsequent film Kiraware Matsuko no Isshou (Memories of Matsuko) which I saw a few years ago, a technicolour pop extravaganza that seems to be at odds with its weighty themes but works brilliantly.

The protagonists Momoko and Ichigo, played by two of Japan’s most talked about actresses Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya, are both charmingly contrary and you can’t help but want them to succeed. There are a lot of comic moments in the film, especially in the beginning when we are a given a technicolour kaleidoscope of Momoko’s background and upbringing, especially her petit yakuza father’s dodgy business: flogging pirate brand goods which became a surprise cult hit.

After getting caught and threatened with legal action, Momoko and her father make a quick getaway to live with her grandmother in a sleepy town called Shimotsuma, where the locals all shop for clothes at Jusco, Japan’s Wal-Mart. Momoko, who spends all her time alone, has one passion, and that is for the lolita fashion brand Baby, The Stars Shine Bright. It isn’t cheap to go all the way to Tokyo to shop for clothes and Momoko soon needs to look for ways to fund her lolita fashion lifestyle, and she does so by selling her father’s long-forgotten knock-offs. And that is how she meets Ichigo, a member of the local ladies motorbike gang, Ponytails. The two strike an unlikely friendship and the film follows their transformation as they realise what they mean to each other.

Shimotsuma Monogatari is a comic, yet poignant, portrayal of smalltown Japan, slowly vanishing as it is consumed by the ever encroaching urban sprawl. The message I got was that wherever you are, you should follow your dreams and that there is always someone you can bond with even in the most unlikeliest of places. I know it sounds cheesy, but what a great film.