While there are many films about the life of the samurai, the world of geishas seems less penetrable for film makers. Not too long ago there was of course Memoires of a Geisha, but with a Western Hollywood director and Chinese lead actress fronting the film is was hard to take it serious. Not that Sakuran presents a historically correct representation of the geisha, but if you're looking for a Japanese alternative, Sakuran will give you a funky look into the lives of the former Japanese class prostitutes.
Sakuran is based on a manga, though presents itself a little different from most other manga adaptations. Of course you shouldn't expect a historical drama , but you will find a less comical and fluffy approach than seen in most manga adaptations. The film is helmed by Mika Ninagawa, raised as photographer and turned director, and clearly eager to bring her previous work experience to the film. Her direction is key in making this film into something more than just a quircky, funny manga-based flick, giving it plenty of extra flair and turning Sakuran into a unique experience.
The story follows the typical geisha structure, starting with a young girl being sold to a geisha house. She is pretty enough for the job and is taught the ways of the geisha. More than simple sex slaves, good geishas are learned in the arts and should be able to boast their talents. Poetry, dance and singing are all equally important parts of what they do. Miyako is particularly good at the job and quickly rises as one of the star prostitutes, much to the envy of her mentor. Still, Miyako is unable to enjoy her life of empty luxury and shallow entertainment, and longs for her freedom.
The basics of the film aren't too earth shattering, and if you happened to run into a geisha film before chances are that you are already familiar with the outline of the story. Miyako is played by Tsuchiya, perfectly cast for this role, though she might risk being type-casted if she continues to take on similar roles. Miyako is in some ways a reprise of her role in Kamikaze Girls, only a little downplayed because of her character's profession. Still, she fits in perfectly, with her less than perfect geisha-like behavior and often devilish look. Kanno plays a good adversary, the rest of the cast is decent enough but aren't too busy as the focus of the film lies mainly with Miyako and her mentor.
Visually though, this film is something else. From the first frames it is obvious that Ninagawa has a keen eye and doesn't go easy on the colors. The film is drenched in bold reds and isn't afraid to overload the frames with a clash of color if needed. Settings, costumes and lighting all play their part in making this one of the most boldly colored films I have seen in a long time. The effect is mesmerizing and is consequently carried out throughout the whole film, never allowing a dull shot or frame to enter the film.
The music is also a little different, featuring more modern sounds which in any other circumstance would clash horribly with the historical setting. But because the film is already bursting out of the screen, this modern approach works and helps to set it apart from its peers a little more. That said, I don't think the soundtrack was perfect, probably a little too poppy in places, but the effect was nice enough alright.
Sakuran is a cool film, if only because it gives you something worth looking at for its entire running time. The drama is rather typical, the acting is good, but these are not the big selling points of the film as it doesn't outclass many other good films on these points. The visuals is why people will remember this film, and if you like your films with lively colors, Sakuran is not to be missed for sure. A fun, quirky but solid and stylistic manga adaptation, it's good to see they are still being made, as I've been a little disappointed with recent efforts coming from Japan.