Call it lush, sumptuous, a symphony of colours, a cinematographer's cherry blossom dream: Mika Ninagawa's directorial debut Sakuran leaves no doubt about her background. An enormously successful photographer, her first film looks exactly like something she would have concocted in the privacy of her own studio, in which every light, piece of fabric and make-up detail are attended to with enormous love and care.
The narrative in these circumstances is there to show the cast of characters to their best advantage like mannequins on a runway. As such, Sakuran could draw attention from fashionable female audiences: expect niche activity, both in festivals and arthouse cinemas, even if the story is not very strong.
The film is set in Yoshiwara, the nest of iniquity in old Tokyo, during Japan's Edo period 300 years ago. That said, everybody talks and acts as if it is set in the modern era, with pumping pop music on the soundtrack confusing the issue even more.
The rebellious Kiyoha (Anna Tschuya) - who rises from street urchin to supreme courtesan, then leaves it all for love - is evidently supposed to symbolise the modern woman who rejects tradition to be her own person.
The film shows her from age eight, when her courtesan potential is spotted, through her tutorial in servicing men; her glorious raise to fame and beauty; her conflicts with other girls around her; her love affairs and disappointments; her resistance to convention; and her final sacrifice for true romance.
The script makes things easy for the director and her actresses (men are only in supporting roles here). First of all, they have to be stunningly beautiful, and they are, starting with model-singer-actress Tschuya, although Yoshino Kimura and Miho Kanno, as two of Kiyoha's temporary superiors, prove tough competition.
They are shown to strong effect through the most amazing fashions: on the occasions when they have to de-robe, for bathing or sexual activities, it all resembles an art photographer's album. Acting is not really necessary, striking poses more so, and as such they perform proficiently.
The real artists, however, are behind the camera. The Yoshiwara they create in the studio may not be an exact replica of the historical one but this, as director Ninagawa has stressed, is not a story about then but very much about now.
Asmik Ace Entertainment
TV Asahi Corp
Tower Records Japan
Nagoya Broadcasting Network
Cinema Investment Corp
Asmik Ace Entertainment