Love and Sex in Old Edo: Sakuran

Sakuran is one of those manga titles that I’ve had on my “please license this in English” wishlist. I had the chance to see the movie adaptation at New York’s Japan Society earlier this year and enjoyed it a lot. To be quite honest, I only found out that Vertical Inc. had licensed the Sakuran manga for the US market and were going to release it this summer mostly because of the promotional items they had at the Japan Society screening. (Just goes to show you how up to date I was with my manga news…) Suffice to say, I wanted more Sakuran, so I figured that if the adaptation was anything like the source material, then I had a lot to look forward to from the manga.

Vertical’s presentation of the manga is stunning. From the glossy foil cover, to the multiple colored pages, it’s hard to not get a sense of the care that Vertical’s editorial team has poured into this book. There was a point when I flinched at the prices that Vertical was charging for their books (being so spoiled on the <$10.00 prices of other manga publishers that have since passed on), but now, I’m happy to pay for quality. Also, if you’re still cautiously on the fence about this book, you’ll be please to know that it’s a one-volume completed work. You buy it, and if you don’t find yourself fawning over it, then you don’t need to get any additional volumes to wrap up the story.

Having said that, I would be among the first to admit that Anno’s art style isn’t for everybody. I liked the art in Sugar Sugar Rune, didn’t love it so much in Happy Mania. I think I’m more impressed with her art when there’s some degree of fashion or styling involved. In Sakuran, it’s almost like somebody let her loose in a fabric shop and gave her free rein to every pattern imaginable. All of the oiran are bedecked in a myriad of lovely kimono. The colored pages are essentially visual smorgasbord, but even in the black-and-white pages, she doesn’t get lazy on the clothing details.

Also, I don’t recall if this true of the other manga created by Moyoco ANNO, but looking through this book, no panel is extraneous. Each little space is filled with something of visual interest. She’s able to present the world of Yoshiwara in great detail, down to the smallest grain of rice that Kiyoha shoves in her mouth, but even in the panels where only a character’s facial expression is drawn, there’s still a lot of interest and detail on that face.

So, if I’ve convinced you to get this manga, then great.

My dissatisfaction with Sakuran comes back to my personal belief that Moyoco ANNO is a better illustrator than storyteller. She comes up with a great premise for a story, but somewhere along the creative process, things get shaky. So, maybe she doesn’t know how to fill in these flaws in the story, or her editor just can’t get the nerve to tell her that she should fix a few things, but the end results of most of her manga just end up so hollow to me. Maybe I’m the only one who’s affected like that, but somehow, I don’t feel that’s the case.

In a nutshell, Sakuran is the story of Kiyoha, a girl who was sold to a “teahouse” in the Yoshiwara district of Edo and how she moved up from a maid to one of the top-ranking oiran. Kiyoha’s life is not without hardship; she’s often beaten and tortured (probably more frequently than the rest since she often tries to run away) and even as one of the popular courtesans, she wasn’t immune from deception and heartbreak. If only Kiyoha was just a tad bit likeable as a character…

As you would expect from a title about Edo-era courtesans, there’s several instances of sexual intercourse between the oiran and their customers. It’s not overly explicit, but it’s not the Barbie-doll shoujo sex in Kaikan Phrase. Even Kiyoha, from a young age, understands that sex is not love, and unfortunately, sex is her job. To guarantee her rise in the ranks of oiran, she has to catch and keep the attention of the most powerful lords and samurai. Even if these samurai are old and pervy. Especially if these samurai are old and pervy.

Alas, our heroine falls for a young, handsome merchant named Sojiro. It doesn’t seem as if an oiran taking a lover is approved, but as long as she takes care of her other “regulars,” most people would turn a blind eye to her extracurricular shenanigans. Being that this is Kiyoha, however, subtlety is not a part of her vocabulary. She blatantly ignores her other clients, even leaving a pre-arranged party altogether to have sex with Sojiro in the other room. If this was a fairy tail (or a regular shoujo manga) , Kiyoha would escape her life as a courtesan and live happily ever after with her sweet lover.  But again, this isn’t that simple — and Sojiro isn’t a prince.

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall that the film ending veers differently from the manga ending. I first thought that I preferred the movie ending, but in the course of writing out this entry, I think the manga ending feels more authentic. Kiyoha has known no other world other than what’s she’s seen within the teahouses; the outside world is too harsh for her, only in her acceptance of her gilded cage will she find satisfaction.