In Sakuran, Moyoco Anno lifts the veil on life in the Edo-period pleasure quarter, Yoshiwara. The story follows Kiyoha, sold into a brothel as a child and forced to work as a maid and her rise to prominence as one of the top-ranking courtesans in Yoshiwara. The allure of the “flower and willow world” as it was called by artists in the day is underscored with the very real tragedy, heartbreak and difficult lives led by those seemingly glamorous courtesans. Will Kiyoha’s fox-like wiles giver her a chance to break free of her gilded cage? Or will her fighting spirit ruin her chances of ever escaping the brothel?
Moyoco Anno is a manga artist I don’t know much about. I’d heard of her first few titles to be released in the US, Flowers and Bees, and Sugar Sugar Rune, but neither title really spoke to me. I actually know more about Hataraki Man, a title of hers that has not been released in the US, but has had an anime and J-drama made about it. I would love to read it, but since it is on hiatus indefinitely in Japan, there seems to be little chance of ever getting it over here. Then Vertical announced Sakuran, a josei title. It’s a historical manga, which I’m always interested in checking out, but I think I’ve been reading too many shojo manga lately. The harsh realities of not just being a courtesan, but growing up in brothel are laid very bare on the pages. It was difficult to read sometimes, but it never stopped being compelling.
Sakuran starts in the present, where Kiyoha is an established courtesan, usually the second or third most popular among the patrons. The most popular, which is the draw for the brothel is the Oiran. She basically supports the brothel with money her attraction brings in. The current Oiran has a lover, that she is determined to die with. He had other ideas and ends up killing her and running away. With no other girl popular enough, the owners turn to Kiyoha. She flat-out refuses as she enjoys her life without real responsibility, but as the others start chanting “Oiran” to her, the story goes back to Kiyoha’s past and her life growing up in the brothel, starting out as maid, becoming an apprentice, then a shizou, through her debut as a full courtesan.
Right from the beginning it’s obvious Kiyoha isn’t going to make things easy. After she is sold to the Tamgiku Tea House, her only thoughts are of escape, and seeing the world outside the Pleasure Quarter’s walls. She is constantly getting tied up and beaten for her poor attitude and attempts to escape, but she only responses with more contempt. She is never broken by violence. The Oiran she works for, Shohi, has no patience for her antics, but sees that Kiyoha is strong, and has the makings of a Oiran herself. It is a harsh world in the brothels, and Kiyoha’s stubbornness and determination to fight back gives her the strength to survive not just the beatings, but the bullying and jealousy of other maids and courtesans. She finds ways to cope, such as crying with another maid in the Quarter that is her age, and continuing the circle of violence, as she beats the maids just as was beaten by Shohi.
At its core, Sakuran is a love story. Love can be expressed in many different ways, but in brothels they can read extremes. From a simple betrayal of trust by supporting a good-for-nothing man who runs off, to cutting off a finger tip to show devotion, to the ultimate sacrifice, a murder-suicide pact, falling in love while working as a courtesan can be a dangerous business. Kiyoha recognizes this, and tries not to fall in love, but even she is not immune. Part of her journey is to feel this strong emotion and feel its consequences when it goes wrong.
But beyond the usual lover/client relationships, Kiyoha has a deeper one with Seiji, a clerk who has worked at Tamagiku since she first arrived as a child. He has watched her grow, and seen her through all of her trials. There was never anything actually said between the two of them, other than Kiyoha’s sniping and Seiji’s retorts, but just through expressions and actions, a strong connection can be seen between Seiji and Kiyoha. He has a real affect on her. She has no retort when he calls her “Oiran” at the beginning. He is always there with worldly advise for her but never stopping her from choosing her own path, even when she escapes to find her lover Soji and face him. It’s the only kind of love you can realistically have in a brothel, one not based on physical or emotional attraction, but on familiarity. Seiji is the one thing that has stayed constant in her life since she came to Tamagiku, and is the only thing she can rely on. Almost like family.
The art of Sakuran takes some time to get used to. Anno’s art can be very stylized at times, and it can something be difficult to tell characters apart. I had a hard time telling Kiyoha from the other courtesans at times after her debut. Their hair and clothes were so similar, and word balloons where hard to tell who they were attributed to. Even after several reads of chapters, I still can’t tell who is who in some of them. But Anno’s attention to detail with the courtesan’s ornate hair styles and pieces is impressive, as are the clothes she draws for them.
Sakuran is a story of the harsh realities of life in the brothels of old Edo. It can be brutal and heart-breaking, and earns its mature rating with some explicit sexual scenes. In the end though, it is about the triumph of the spirit, and finding one’s place. For all her criticism, Kiyoha found her home, in the place she least expected. Sakuran is historical drama at its best.
Review copy provided by publisher.