Fellah Pictures
Mika Ninagawa/Japan 2007

The whore with a heart of gold is a stereotype as old as cinema itself. Women must not only be sexually accessible, but also must enjoy it. It’s a male fantasy, we all know that, and as far as that goes it is fine. But men aren’t the only people looking to go to the movies on a Saturday night; so how does cinema sell this fantasy to women as well? With glamour.

It’s easy to see why geishas have captured the world’s imagination. The white body paint, precise make-up, and incredibly gorgeous, intricate, impossible clothes create a difficult beauty, specific to Japanese culture but admired across the world. But this is beauty embodied by women who can play musical instruments, dance, sing, outdrink the men, and be enticing, amusing, and available for a price, in all ways. The movies insist that geishas are artists. Everyone insists that their mere bodies cannot be bought. Geishas are images of perfection. No one recalls that this is the perfections of birds in cages. Geishas were property of their houses just as the furniture was, even the clothes on their backs. The fact that their artistry is paid for on those backs, that their sexual skills can be bought for a price is meant to be a regrettable side effect of their perfection.

Sakuran takes the geisha story to a whole new level. Of course, they say it’s about an ‘oiran’ – what geisha were called in the 1700s – but let’s not split hairs. Sakuran (which means cherry blossom trees), which stars Anna Tsuchiya, a notorious Japanese singer-single mother wild child, and which was originally a manga by Moyoco Anno, tells the story of Kiyoha, sold to the geisha house as a child who learns to become the most famous geisha in the land.

The film is Memoirs of a Geisha meets Moulin Rouge!, without the singing, or much of a sense of fun. Tsuchiya even has the huge eyes beloved of Japanese cartoon heroines (her father is Russian). The story of Kiyoha’s rebellion, punishment, rise to power and the rest has been done before, and done better.  Sakuran’s unique selling point are the jaw-dropping visuals. Director Mika Ninagawa is a garlanded fashion photographer, and she knows how to dress an image. The cinematography by Takuro Ishizaka and production design by Namiko Iwaki pile on the gorgeousness shot by shot, as evidenced when Kiyoha sits in front of a red maple tree, the reflection of which gleams in the wooden floor and in the gold walls and brightly colored kimonos of the house. The flowers by Azuma Makoto in the background of most scenes are an incredible tribute to the art of flower arranging. The brightly colored, lavish costumes are incredibly beautiful, brightly colored and a tribute to the power of fashion; the Oscar-winning costumes in Memoirs of a Geisha pale in comparison.

There is, sadly, a great deal of cliché in all this beauty; the background flower arrangements should not be the main focus of attention. The incessant shots of goldfish, for example, could spawn a metaphorical drinking game. Ninagawa paid so much attention to the visuals that she forgot to make sure her actresses had something to do other than be breathtaking. The only fresh characterization comes from tiny Ai Yamaguchi as Shigeji, the little girl who can look forward to a future as bright as Kiyoha’s. Her love of sweets and her friendly outlook are as much individuality as anyone is allowed in the film. The music by Ringo Shena has been praised widely elsewhere on the net, but I don’t understand why. It is cloying and jarringly contemporary, especially the choice of cocktail-lounge piano music over a dramatic romantic scene.

What surprised me the most about Sakuran was the coyness about sex. Perhaps I saw Ugetsu Monogatari at too early an age; perhaps I thought that metaphors with eels and caves, such as poor Michelle Yeoh had to deliver in Memoirs of a Geisha, was only a Hollywood speciality. But a movie about women trapped in sexual slavery brings the audience to expect something interesting of a sexual nature. Sure, there are mirroring scenes of young Kiyoha (Ayame Koike) watching her geisha mentor (Miho Kanno), with Shigeji watching Kiyoha some years later, but there isn’t any hint of the physical price these women paid. For all the cruel dialogue about her sexual perfection, Tsuchiya keeps her clothes on. The only real nudity comes in a bath scene, early on, as Kiyoha’s discovery of living in ‘a world of women’ apparently means being bombarded with quick-cut, and remarkably non-sexual, images of lots of breasts.

Certainly I thought there was more to femininity and womanhood than that, and I am surprised and disappointed that a film trumpeted as being by “five brilliant women” didn’t have any insights that were deeper than a goldfish bowl. Sakuran is bound to be added to the collection of DVDs that I watch with the sound off just to soak up the pictures. Let’s hope Ninagawa’s next film has a captivating story to tell, not just show.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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