By Moyoco Anno. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Evening. Released in North America by Vertical.
The oiran, or high-ranking courtesan, is a very popular character in manga of the Edo period. We’ve seen them solving crimes, manipulating high level politicians, and craftily playing one side against another. We have even, occasionally, seen them entertaining clients. However, a lot of those plots have been typical manga fodder, and the life of a typical Edo brothel worker is far more painful, degrading and tortuous. Sakuran shows us the story of Kiyoha, a strong-willed and rebellious girl who must be broken (but not completely) into the role of a courtesan.
We meet Kiyoha when she’s a child, and a good deal of the book is witnessing her grow up. Well, to a certain degree. One good thing about Anno’s characterization of her heroine is that Kiyoha can be quite unlikeable at times – willful, stubborn, quick to violence. They’re qualities that *also* make for a good oiran – the job is so grinding and will-breaking – this is forced prostitution we’re talking about – that only the strong can hope to survive. (Note that Kiyoha makes friends at one point with another cute and lively girl, and briefly bonds with her… before the other girl dies (the dialogue makes it unclear if she killed herself or was beaten to death). And indeed, once Kiyoha comes of age and rises to the level of oiran, she is noted for both her young beauty and her cynical smile.
We see Kiyoha try to escape quite a few times, but it’s made clear that the ideal way to escape is to have a man take so much notice of you that he proposes – buys out your contract. We see this with Kiyoha’s mentor Shohi, who I think comes off the best out of everyone in this manga. She’s certainly cruel and sadistic to Kiyoha, but it’s that sort of ‘it’s in order to make you stronger’ mentoring that always seems to pay off in the end. There’s nothing Shohi can *do* for Kiyoha in this environment except that. Notably, Kiyoha’s own love affair, which is made out to be more ‘illicit’, does not end nearly as well.
The ending of Sakuran can be seen as a bit bleak. After her most successful escape attempt yet, Kiyoha realizes that things on the outside are not any better for her than life in the brothel. She says in dialogue that she returned on her own, and in her inner monologue (showing us scenes of her being punished and tortured) that she feels better now that she knows there’s no ‘better world’ to go to. Kiyoha, unlike Shohi, does not seem to be the sort who can simply gain the favor of a rich man in a way that would get her out of there – I think she’d sabotage it. At least in the way she is now. The manga is open ended in that you question how broken she really is. I like to think that she still has a lot of strength in her.
The tension between what is needed to be a good oiran and the fact that it also makes a person realize how awful their life is and yearn for freedom is the core of Sakuran. Combined with Anno’s stunningly gorgeous artwork (you can argue everyone looks too similar, but that’s more a function of the time period than the artist), you have a manga whose images and ideas will stay with you long after you read it.