Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Dec 1st 2012
As an orphaned child, Kiyoha was sold to a brothel in Tokyo (Edo)'s Yoshiwara district. Because of her beauty, she was trained as a courtesan and her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder. But Kiyoha has never wanted to be a part of this life. Will that always hold true, or will a lover (not a client) change her mind?
Sakuran is no “Pretty Woman.” Readers familiar with Moyoco Anno's unstintingly harsh look at love (see Happy Mania and Flowers and Bees) will not have been expecting a rehash of the Cinderella story in this particular tale of prostitution, but for those looking for an unusual romance or a narrative about the softer side of the oldest profession will not find it here. What, then, is Sakuran? It is a bitter story about a sad woman who hides behind an angry face that will not please all readers, but for those who don't mind fairly graphic sex and the mistreatment of women and children, an engrossing one.
Most of the story is told in flashbacks. The first chapter introduces us to Kiyoha, an angry courtesan (ranked third in her brothel) who gets herself into trouble an awful lot. She abuses little girls who serve as maids, says harsh things to her co-workers, and is not above trying to seduce Seiji, the house's clerk, when he comes to speak to her. All-in-all, she is a singularly unpleasant person, and one finds oneself wondering how on earth we are expected to want to read about her. Chapter two, fortunately, brings us to a place where we can begin to understand how Kiyoha became who she is. As a young girl, she was sold to the brothel where we find her in chapter one, a fate that she rebels against. Lashing out at everyone, she is nonetheless forced into the house, where she becomes a maid. The only sort-of ally that she has is Seiji, and he is representative of a slim hope at best. Kiyoha is repeatedly told that because she is beautiful, she will be kept on and trained as a courtesan herself. She protests this, acts out, and the only result is her punishment. Very quickly, it becomes clear that Kiyoha's wishes count for nothing at all.
As she grows, Kiyoha goes through a succession of names that denote her increasing status, and eventually her beauty begins to cause problems with the top-ranking courtesan. Soon enough her virginity is being offered up for sale, and by the middle of the 250 page book, Kiyoha is a full-fledged prostitute. Anno doesn't shy away from the details of such a life, with Kiyoha receiving instructions on how to make a man think she's having a good time, advice on how not to get pregnant, and a vaginal exam by the owner of the brothel, where he assesses the firmness, shape, and color of her flesh. By the time you've finished reading that sentence you will know if this is a book for you or not – Kiyoha is witnessing sex acts from the time she arrives at the brothel and there are no pretty metaphors or cute code words for body parts to be found in these pages. Anno does not, however, draw graphic depictions of genitals, although pubic hair is is plain view. While that keeps the book well out of the realm of hentai, it still makes it something you'd think twice about reading during the morning commute.
If sex is treated matter-of-factly, Anno does wax a bit poetic about love. That Kiyoha is meant to experience the one without the other becomes a major theme in the second half of the volume, and the question of whether or not true love is possible within the confines of her career drives her until almost the last page. Love, it is implied, can make her weak. Several times we are poignantly reminded that Kiyoha will not allow herself to cry in front of others; this is a woman who has been so mistreated by life that to show any weakness is to let the world win. Her encounters with true love have the potential to lift her up...but whether than can is another story.
Anno's artwork may take readers unfamiliar with it aback, as she has a very distinctive and not entirely pretty style, but she captures the grime and detail of the period, denoting backgrounds with a few simply pieces of furniture or buildings, as if this were a stage play that we are witnessing on paper. Vertical's translation reads smoothly, avoiding slang but without using language that is too antique for the casual reader, and the mirrored cover is eye-catching. Plenty of color pages – and some interesting gray-scale ones – are included, making this well worth the cover price. Simply put, this is a beautifully produced book.
Overall Sakuran is a sad, empty story about one woman's life not turning out the way she would have liked it to. It pulls at you without being maudlin, or even sad; rather it is quietly tragic to compare the different Kiyohas we see throughout the book. It is easy to see where Anno could have developed certain threads and characters, but any sense of loss we feel upon completion isn't due to a lack of story development; it is a sadness for that which has been lost and the emptiness wishes leave behind.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Nicely crafted story with complimentary art. We can really see Kiyoha's character develop, which increases the emotional pull. Vertical put together a great package.
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