Sakuran: riot night in

Cover image © ICA Films

Cover image © ICA Films

One of the things I find interesting about the Western view of geisha is that they are usually presented as helpless victims of a system of institutionalised sexual slavery. From the tragic Cho-Cho-san of Verdi’s opera Madame Butterfly to the heroine of Arthur Golden’s book Memoirs of a Geisha, geisha are defined by the men who buy or rent them.

The idea of geisha as artists, or as independent career women, is scarcely ever considered. Yet before the American Occupation, there were very few Japanese women whose lives allowed them to study music, dance and art, to live without domestic responsibilities and to have a reasonable degree of autonomy. Women were expected to devote their entire lives to family and home. Only a few wealthy women had any chance of education or artistic careers. The only way a middle-class or lower-class girl could hope for anything but domestic duty was through geisha training. This was hard and demanding, but then, so was life. No woman outside a nunnery (Buddhist or Christian) could escape the exchange of sex and work for food.

It’s almost as if we need geisha to be nothing more than exploited sex slaves. Perhaps that perception helps to support an atavistic belief that our social systems are intrinsically superior to those of other nations, or perhaps it’s still difficult for the mass media to credit women with any interests outside sex and shopping. Perhaps the Christian viewpoint that the flesh is evil influences us, even in this non-Christian era, to believe human beauty can never be other than sexual. Perhaps in seeking out films and books about geisha, trying to see the topic from as many viewpoints as possible, I’m trying to confirm an atavistic belief of my own.

Sakuran is a film I’ve been meaning to see for a while. I like stories from the ‘floating world’, the geisha quarters of pre-war Japan, I like Moyoco Anno‘s comics, and it’s always interesting to see how a film treats a story from another medium. The trigger to finally pick up Mika Ninagawa‘s film was another late pickup, Tetsuya Nakashima’s feisty, funny Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuma Monogatari.) I was so struck by actress Anna Tsuchiya that I wanted to see more of her work.

Ninagawa shares Nakashima’s interest in Western cinema, and her movie is redolent of Memoirs of a Geisha and  Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, both films that buy in to the woman-as-victim stereotype. She steers it away from this attitude by cleverly exploiting the onscreen persona established by leading lady Tsuchiya, in Kamikaze Girls and in her previous modelling and music career. Laden with the trappings of eighteenth-century Yoshiwara,  ex-model Tsuchiya gazes out of the movie poster like a tiger behind glass, a free spirit caught in a conformist world. The face-paint and ornate embroidery are not so very far removed from her Kamizake Girls biker gear. Her features echo her mixed-race heritage – Japanese, Russian, American – lending an extra twist of piquancy to heroine Kiyoha, a country girl determined to go her own way regardless of the consequences.

Trappings are as far as Ninagawa goes in buying into the idea of geisha-as-victim. True, the world of the geisha house is as bitchy and petty as a Western boarding school, but few see Harry Potter as a story of victimhood and enslavement to magic. Tsuchiya’s stubborn, intelligent Kiyoha kicks against the restrictions of her society, but she’s nobody’s fool. Yuki Tanada’s intelligent script allows her to grow up, moving from teenage truculence to confident maturity, finally claiming her own destiny. The riot-grrrl persona created in Kamikaze Girls, a development of her bad-girl pop persona, is cleverly used to set up the character. Then, echoing the film’s ongoing motif  of a cherry tree waiting to blossom, Tsuchiya is given space to allow Kiyoha to flower.

That intelligent script isn’t without its flaws. Several times in the last half hour the film seems close to a natural conclusion, then starts up again, creating a sensation rather akin to a debate with a teenager who keeps trying to have the last word. A couple of plot threads are left hanging unnecessarily. Though character development is generally good, both Tanada and Ninagawa are openly more interested in the women than the men.

But this is an easy film to forgive. Like its heroine, it has disarming flashes of honesty and touches of sweetness, and it’s ravishingly, hyperbolically, opulently gorgeous. Ninagawa, daughter of stage and screen genius Yukio Ninagawa, made her name as a photographer. The lessons learned there are very much to the fore. She uses anachronisms, both verbal and visual, to draw parallels between today’s cult of celebrity (and Japan’s own ‘idol system’) and the constantly shifting heirarchies of the geisha quarters. She also crowds the surface of the screen with saturated, gilded, iridescent colour, cramming every frame with intricate detail and using the few natural elements – goldfish, flowers, the night sky – to  underscore the gloriously tacky artificiality of the geisha world. Her Yoshiwara is a shopping mall, crammed with desirable but ultimately disposable tat. Glimpsed in daytime, without lamplight and artifice, both the girls and the streets look less alluring: but when the lamps are lit and the girls turn on those smiles, we buy into the hype as eagerly as any bedazzled Edo punter.

Sex, of course, is the driver behind all pleasure quarters, and its more sophisticated cousins art and sensuality are a long way down the agenda for most customers. Some characters are trapped by sex, but most are held prisoner by aversion to risk. Several characters make the point that goldfish die outside their bowls, but Kiyoha realises the fallacy. A goldfish might not look as pretty in a river, and its life would be harder, but it can breathe in any water, without an owner to take care of it.

Ninagawa and Tanada are doing history-lite, but their main interest isn’t historical accuracy: it’s what they and their audience perceive as emotional honesty. Young women are constantly engaged in negotiation with their cultures, trying to understand the past they are often expected to live by in terms of the present they have no option but to inhabit. Sakuran is a naughty, joyous, ultimately hopeful work, beautifully shot and designed and acted with gusto by the entire cast, especially Tsuchiya. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you treat yourself.

The only real annoyance for me was the lack of any attempt to translate the credits on the ICA Films DVD release. These are usually available for the asking from the licensor, so ICA’s failure to provide them is baffling. I can forgive the complete absence of extras, but not including the cast and crew translated when you’re subtitling the film anyway is just plain silly. They’re easily available on IMDb, but that’s beside the point. Getting to know actors, crew members and support staff is central to a proper appreciation of the craft of film, and it’s in every distributor’s interest to support that.

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