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Japan 2006


Mika Ninagawa

Anna Tsuchiya
Masanobu Ando
Kippei Shiina
Kenichi Endo
Hiroki Narimiya
Miho Kanno
Yoshino Kimura
Masatoshi Nagase
Sadanji Ichikawa
Renji Ishibashi

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Story: During the 18th century the girl Kiyoha (Anna Tsuchiya) is sold into a red light district in Edo. There she learns to sing, dance and how to lead a conversation like a geisha. At first Kiyoha is of the lowest rank, but apart from her feisty nature there is also something else about her that drives men crazy. Soon she secures the favor of her suitors and concerning her rivals she can come out on top. However, she eventually hopelessly falls in love with the young man Sojiro (Hiroki Narimiya). At the same time she becomes the new oiran, the daugher of joy with the highest rank within the amusement center, and is courted by the samurai Kuranosuke (Kippei Shiina) who even wants to make her his wife. With her newly won power Kiyoha learns to bend the rules according to her will in the establishment and prefers to spend the night with poor men who have their heart in the right place rather than with rich noblemen. But she can't be happy this way and so she continuous dreaming of the day at which she can flee her life while her protector Seiji (Masanobu Ando) is holding off the most obvious harm from her.

Review: There are movies you should have seen simply because of their visual inventiveness. "Sakuran" is such a movie. With the many lush colors, which are mainly somewhere in the red and goldscale area, the movie most of all reminds us of Tetsuya Nakashima ("Memories of Matsuko", "Kamikaze Girls"). However, this is in fact female director Mika Ninagawa's debut work. The impressive visuals of the film may derive from the fact that Mika has gained a reputation not to be scoffed at as a photographer in the art world. Moreover, the drama is based upon a manga by Moyoco Anno which is why approaching the material from a focus on the visuals is the obvious thing to do. "Sakuran" tells its story in an almost pop-like fashion, or at least it's not your typical geisha drama playing in Edo. Unfortunately, the story is told in a bit too much stretched manner which sometimes even results in a bit of boredom, despite the welcome refreshing approach at the matter.

Seeing Anna Tsuchiya ("Kamikaze Girls") in the role of a lady of easy virtue during the 18th century seems rather strange since she is obviously not a hundred percent Japanese. And that's seemingly just what's her special appeal for many men. Furthermore, Kiyoha is short-tempered, stubborn and in private not really ladylike, but she in fact manages to play her part in front of her customers. At least most of the time. Tsuchiya is therefore almost playing two roles while one has to be shining through the other. And she cuts a fine figure doing so while she is supported by a strong cast altogether. Masanobu Ando ("Sukiyaki Western Django", "Drive") as the brother substitute or Kippei Shiina ("Shinobi", "Outrage") as a samurai who learns that he can't win over Kiyoha with money alone. Yet, all of these characters remain discretely in the background, while Kiyoha is the only one who gets out of line with her excentric nature and therefore stands in the center of the movie.

The sets created with a keen eye for details and the bright gaudy colors stand in a certain contrast to the setting of the story and the time in which it plays. This contrast is also to be found in the soundtrack. The music by Ringo Shiina is a bit poplike resp. has some jazz elements to it which fits better into the film than one might think, yet doesn't really work the way it was supposed to. The atmosphere of the film remains unique thanks to that, though. Sadly, the story can't be really captivating. There are many characters with which Kiyoha interacts but only to a few of them the audience can create an emotional bond. Also, concerning Seiji you can only realize very late which relationship he has with the oiran and that, most of all in respect to the ending, seems rather unfortunate. More emotional involvement of the viewer could have been achieved without problems if a few characters had been granted more space to unfold.

"Sakuran" draws the picture of a wife in the Las Vegas of old Japan, but despite the fact that the film is dominated by women in front and behind the camera there are only few really emotional scenes. That's the reason why you sadly can't get really into the film the way it actually might have deserved it. Furthermore, the story can't captivate the whole running time of the movie. Oftentimes there is just too little happening and all you can do is continue admiring the pictures while asking yourself where the film actually wants to go. The changes in the life of the oiran almost make the film look like a biography, yet it doesn't look episodic since you can only make out that several years are passing for Kiyoha if you look closely. Besides the technically well-achieved adaption the drama lacks some warmth. Isn't it just this warmth that the daughter of joy is in search for? Her yearning, however, is unnecessarily taking a backseat despite the allegory of a cherry blossom tree that never bears any fruits.

There is a lot of potential in "Sakuran", especially the beautiful pictures are almost intoxicating when looking at them and the polarity worked into the film is appealing, but the story isn't enough to fill out this richly ornated frame. On an acting level the movie is convincing as well, but the drama also can't work out on a subtle level the way it should have. Therefore, what's left at the end is an at times even lengthy drama that should have put more focus on the story. Especially the supporting characters oftentimes look rather colorless which stands out even more displeasing against the background of such an otherwise colorful work. In the end "Sakuran" is a modern adaptation of the story of a strong woman, who knows how to make her point in a world dominated by men, even if she only has her female attributes to do so. An interesting film, which just has too many flaws, though.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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