Sakuran (2007) dir. Mika Ninagawa
Starring: Anna Tsuchiya, Kippei Shiina, Yoshino Kimura, Hiroki Narimiya
A good friend of mine loaned me this Japanese film on DVD with the selling point, the director is the ‘Sophia Coppola of Japan.’ High praise, but an accurate description of this interesting and unique film. It tells the story of a brothel in Feudal Japan. From the point of view of a child who is sold into the business, we watch her grow and learn the ropes of the prostitution business. Imagine an authentic “Memoirs of a Geisha”. Though it’s Japanese, it’s crafted with a hint of an American sensibility to make it viewable in the West.
We are introduced to Kiyoha, a beautiful teenage girl who works in a Japanese brothel. She narrates her own story starting with the day she was sold into the business at the age of 8. Over the next few years this little girl learns of life, love and sex from her gossipy foul-mouthed brothel women. From her first day in the brothel, she desires to leave the place. But as she gets older she blends in with her company of women and eventually becomes the most sought-after of girls. When an opportunity presents itself to leave her most-hated pleasure-house her own personal scruples emerges which prevents her from leaving.
Sakuran is the debut feature of 34 year old Mika Ninagawa – a photographer by trade who has branched out into filmmaking. The film certainly has a photographer’s eye. It’s bathed in saturated colours, beautifying slo-mo and immaculately composed frames. In fact, the film jumped out at me so much I had trouble figuring out the timeframe. I am so used to seeing this period in Japan shot either in black and white (as in a Kurasawa film), or with a dark, shadowy tone.
Like Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” the film modernizes the period with the refreshing flare of pop music. Though I didn’t recognize any of the music, I found myself tapping my foot.
Mika’s also is not shy with showing some skin. There’s a particular funny scene shot from young Kiyoha’s point of view in the bathing room. The camera cuts together a lengthy sequence of close-ups of naked breasts. Because it’s from a female director and a female point of view it feels legit – as opposed to a Brian De Palma girls locker room sequence which is just naughty. We get to see the amorous acts of lovemaking with only a minor cover-up here and there. Mika makes it all very sexy and wanting.
I admit not to knowing much of Japanese cinema other than Kurosawa, Godzilla, and a few other Samurai films. Virtually every Samurai film I’ve seen has had a scene in a brothel, so it’s refreshing to see the other side of those male-centric scenes we’ve seen a hundred times. Check your local arthouse DVD retailer for an import or bootleg DVD copy. Enjoy.