How did “Memoirs of a Geisha” (“Sayuri” here in Japan) get it so drearily wrong — and Mika Ninagawa’s new film, “Sakuran,” get it so gloriously right?

Experts on geisha culture, as well as geisha themselves, slammed Rob Marshall’s film for its inaccuracies in everything from obi patterns to Zhang Ziyi’s glitzy solo dance, which had about the same relation to real buyo (Japanese dance) as “The Chorus Line” does to kabuki. The decision to cast non-Japanese in the three main female roles also came in for criticism, for reasons ranging from xenophobic revulsion to cold box-office logic.

I found Ziyi’s dance ludicrous and the casting culturally obtuse — it was like starring four Commonwealth actresses (say a Brit, a South African, a Kenyan and a Jamaican) in the quintessentially American “Dreamgirls,” but my main objection to the film was its phony exoticism, echoing the Hollywood films of the 1950s set in the “mysterious East,” but with less of an excuse.

Director Mika Ninagawa
Run Time 111 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Feb. 24, 2007

Ninagawa, a photographer-turned-director whose father is stage director Yukio Ninagawa, takes as her subject not the done-to-death geisha, but the Edo-era prostitutes of Yoshiwara, the nightlife district that served as an emporium of the flesh for everyone from elite samurai to working-class Taros for hundreds of years. (It still exists, but sleazy “soaplands” [sex parlors] have replaced the once-storied Japanese brothels)

True to her background — and her own uninhibited tastes, Ninagawa dresses her actresses and decorates her sets in a theatrical riot of color, with a cheeky indifference to period fidelity. Did the bordellos of the period feature the gorgeously extravagant flower arrangements found in “Sakuran?” Did the whores, even the elite oiran, wear such fabulously glam kimonos every working night? I suspect the answer is a big, thundering “no” — but I didn’t mind the visual overload, quite the opposite.

Unlike Marshall, who imposed a romanticized Western (or rather Broadway) template over his geisha, Ninagawa sees her oiran as, not hapless victims of a cruel patriarchy or idealized figments of male erotic imaginations, but young women alive and whole, with desires, dreams and tastes immediately recognizable to their 21st Century peers. (Oiran as the Edo’s answer to the Shibuya gyaru [“gal”]). Also, she is not a slipshod curator of dusty cultural artifacts, but a sui generis artist who flamboyantly but perceptively re-imagines the era. Her Yoshiwara may be more highly colored than the real thing, but it vividly expresses the glamour and beauty at the heart of the place’s appeal, while exposing its everyday realities, from the trivial to the tragic.

Her heroine is Kiyoha (Anna Tsuchiya), who was brought to the Tamagikuya brothel in Yoshiwara while still a child — and hated it. A feisty sort, she tried to escape its walls at every opportunity, but was always brought back by Seiji (Masanobu Ando), the brothel’s relentless-but-sympathetic bancho (chief clerk). Kiyoha chafes under the supervision of Shohi (Miho Kanno), a canny oiran who looks down on her an as an untutored peasant, but she finally decides to become an oiran herself.

As one of Yoshiwara’s elite, she will command enormous sums for her favors and perhaps, like Shohi, eventually leave on the arm of a rich danna (patron). That, she knows, is her only realistic avenue of escape.

At the age of 17, Kiyoha takes her first customer, a kindly old sybarite (Sadanji Ichikawa) who is a patron of the brothel’s top oiran, the arrogant Takao (Yoshino Kimura). Then she falls in love with the young, sensitive Sojiro (Hiroki Narimiya) — and lets her various masks (tough cookie, polished pro) slip. In doing so, she risks ruin. In a business that sells the illusion of love, the real thing is the most dangerous emotion of all.

She also incurs the jealousy of Takao when one of the oiran’s patrons, the painter Mitsunobu (Masatoshi Nagase), begins to show an interest in her.

Despite the romance and rivalry, Kiyoha is promoted to oiran, receives a new name — Higurashi — and becomes a Yoshiwara star. Finally, a rich, indulgent samurai, Kuranosuke (Kippei Shiina), appears as the answer to all her prayers — i.e., the danna who will set her free. By now, however, she is like the fish that swim about in the brothel’s aquariums — a creature of her enclosed, protected environment. Has freedom come too late?

As Kiyoha/Higurashi, Anna Tsuchiya dominates the screen with a swaggering, profane verve reminiscent of her biker girl in “Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)” — the role that made her a star — but with flashes of a previously unseen vulnerability. She also makes no attempt to play the period — or rather ape period drama cliches, and thus comes across as totally authentic.

Perfectly expressing the old-is-new vision of “Sakuran” is the soundtrack score by pop diva Sheena Ringo. It swings ferociously in a mix of jazz and pop idioms, unlike anything I’ve ever heard in any movie, foreign or Japanese. Did I mention that the artist of the original manga (Moyoco Anno), the scriptwriter (Yuki Tanada), the art director (Namiko Iwashiro) and the producer (Chikako Nakabayashi) are also women? Mr. Marshall, face it — you passed over these and other Japanese women of similar talent because you were blind. But now the whole world will see “Sakuran.”

See related story:
Feminine mystique
Ninagawa paints a vivid picture

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