A while back I reviewed Sakuran, the motion picture, and I called it “the antidote to Memoirs of a Geisha”: funny, sassy, bold, and bitter, where Geisha was just wistful, sodden, and romanticized in all the wrong ways. The same good things could be said for the manga that was the source for Sakuran, now out in English thanks to — who else? — Vertical Inc., who are increasingly becoming to manga what Criterion or perhaps Kino International have been to film.
Sakuran (the title is a multiple pun, which the English subtitle Blossoms Wild alludes to) is set in a pleasure house in Yoshiwara, the red-light district for Edo (old Tokyo) during the later samurai years. The top girl of the house, Kiyoha, is no sweet little flower: she’s a sassy, impulsive, smart-mouthed (shilling for foulmouthed) operator, but only because that’s the only way to get ahead. She always had a rebellious streak, starting back when she was sold to the brothel as a little girl and trained as a maid. She despises everything about the place, right from the git-go: the total lack of freedom, the backstabbing, the gossip, the vicious discipline. (She spends a few too many evenings tied to a tree out in the yard and doused with cold water.)
The worst part of the whole arrangement doesn’t become clear to her until she’s of age and old enough to be an actual working girl. It’s not the sex, but the lack of affection — or rather, the way every bit of affection that manifests in this little world is actually an affectation. If you’re a good enough liar, you might impress some rich merchant and have him buy out your contract — but doing so entails the risk of being the object of everyone else’s jealousy. Even the people who seem most like your friends — e.g., Seiji, one of the male aides who forms a sort-of friendship with Kiyoha over the years — can only be so friendly before they augur headfirst into the wall of duty and discipline. And god help you if you actually do fall in love, something Kiyoha grudgingly finds herself drifting towards, knowing full well it will only hurt her no matter what happens.
It’s the attitude, more than anything else — Kiyoha’s, and that of the story itself — which makes Sakuran shine. The fact that soiled doves lead a life of misery isn’t an especially profound insight; it’s the specific ways that misery becomes a way of life for everyone involved which is eye-opening and absorbing. Moyoco Anno, the writer and artist (she also created Sugar Sugar Rune), takes a calculated risk by starting off with Kiyoha in full bloom of her brassy antagonism, and then jumping back to show us how she got that way — or rather, to show us how her always-extant stubbornness and bad attitude might well have been the only thing keeping her fire alive. Anno’s artwork, by the way, is rough in a way that makes what she’s depicting look that much less alluring and sexy and that much more grubby and matter-of-fact. I did try to imagine the book in a more polished style, and it didn’t work at all: it would have been like shooting a two-fisted pulp noir in gaudy wide-frame Technicolor.
People have written before about the Japanese-ness of Japanese popular culture — not just the fact that something like Sakuran makes use of a piece of Japanese history or is laden with cultural trappings of various kinds, but how the story’s point of view on its material is also a product of its origins. My aforementioned beef with Geisha wasn’t just that it was soap-opera level storytelling, but that it embodied a second-hand, outsider’s view of Japan, and it couldn’t help but become condescending and superficial. Sakuran works not just because it’s “from Japan”, but because it uses that to its utmost advantage to say things about its material that would never occur to someone just playing tourist. Most of the current crop of Western authors who use the same locale — I.J. Parker and Laura Joh Rowland come to mind — seem to be steering clear of anything like this brazen, nervy quality, maybe out of fear of seeming disrespectful. I think that’s a mistake, and Sakuran is further proof that a bad attitude can be a great thing.
Postscript: Extra kudos to Vertical are due for them taking the trouble to have Sakuran produced in an edition that recalls the classy look of the Japanese printing: chrome covers, color inserts, lavish-quality endpapers. The book itself exudes the exotic flavor of the very milieu it’s about, which is either appropriate or ironic depending on how you want to take it.