Japanese culture is often reduced to stereotypes: geisha, samurai, kimono, sushi. In Sakuran, Mika Ninagawa attacks one of those stereotypes, the geisha, with wit and style. While geisha in films have usually been portrayed as talented artists who tragically fall in love with the men who pay for their affections, Sakuran lays bare the mercenary foundations of the geisha by focusing on her older sister the oiran, the highest class of prostitute in Japan’s early modern pleasure districts. Where other films romanticize geisha, Ninagawa stylizes them. Sakuran’s characters are prostitutes who were sold into sexual slavery as children. They may fall in love, but that is never the point of their existence. Their real raison d’être is, quite simply, style.
Oiran were the style icons of their day, but Ninagawa inescapably foregrounds the necessity of style in their lives through an avalanche of color. Mika Ninagawa first came to international prominence as a photographer whose pictures always feature super-saturated color. As a director, she suffuses everything associated with the prostitutes with bright, at times even garish, colors. For example, the rice paper covering doors in the protagonist’s home-cum-place of business is dyed red, yellow and blue – and then backlit to ensure that the colors are not toned down by shadows. Even black and white become stylized in a key sequence where Kiyoha, the rebellious oiran, carries out a ritual public parade. Lit by red lanterns and walking through a crowd of people garbed in drab colors made ugly by the red glare, Kiyoha the contrarian naturally chose to don a black-and-white patterned obi and surround herself with servants clad in another black-and-white pattern. Kiyoha proclaims her stylishness to the district by ostentatiously abandoning its pigmented devotion for an event when all eyes will be on her.
With Sakuran, Ninagawa recovers the vital role oiran and later geisha played in Japan’s popular and sartorial cultures. While other films use geisha to embody male fantasies, Sakuran shows how girls at the lowest rung on the societal ladder could grow into rich women… and how hollow their wealth was.
Find out more about Sakuran on the film’s website.
Amanda Kennell is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University at Buffalo. She is currently working on a book, Alice in Evasion: Adaptation/Carroll/Japan about Japanese adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland novels. Dr. Kennell’s work has been published by the British Museum, The Journal of Popular Culture, andFilm Criticism. She has held fellowships from the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, the Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities program, the Nippon Foundation and the Cassady Lewis Carroll Collection. She received a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as an M.A. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Pennsylvania.