Born in 1972, Mika Ninagawa is a photographer with a long list of awards, gallery shows, photo books and credits, from fashion magazine spreads to CD covers. Known for her vivid sense of color and composition, Ninagawa has been branching out into video production and now film, with her first feature “Sakuran.” At a recent interview with The Japan Times, Ninagawa was a ball of verbal energy, rattling off lengthy answers with sub clauses to the sub clauses. Our 30 minutes together were less an interaction than an inundation from her active, fertile mind.

What made you decide to take on this project?

First, I had to be sure that I could bring the (manga) story to life. Second, I had to be sure that it was something only I could do. If it wasn’t, there were any number of directors who would be able to film it.

I really liked the original manga. There’s a sense of reality in it. (The artist) is not exactly proclaiming her femininity, but she’s very accurate in her depictions of women in a way that hadn’t been done before. There were certain aspects of the psychology of the (Yoshiwara) prostitutes that I couldn’t understand, but as I studied the records of the period, I learned that . . . a lot of their feelings were the same as what women have today. That’s when I thought that perhaps I could do this.

Anna Tsuchiya’s character resembles the biker she played in “Shimotsuna Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls),” but there are differences as well.

I’ve known Anna for years and have photographed her in various situations. The performance she gives (in the film) is Anna in the raw. Parts (of the performance) match her image, but other parts reveal a more vulnerable Anna. Her vulnerable, sensitive side is also a big part of her character to those who know her well. She’s just not this tough girl — instead there’s a good balance of the weak and the strong.

What was hardest about the shoot for you?

Well, it was a hard shoot in general, but the hardest part was communication. . . . If I noticed that something was wrong, when was the best time to say it? Right away, in front of everyone? Or later, in private? . . . I had a lot of arguments with people in the beginning — they were muttering “I’d like to kill that director” to each other as often as they said “good morning.” (laughs)

Did you start with the visuals — or did the story come first?

I absolutely wanted to make (the visuals) beautiful, but if a film is just beautiful it’s no different from a promotional video. The (visuals) were my lowest priority, actually — I had confidence that I could make them look good, so I sort of shunted them aside. Instead I concentrated in making the script interesting.

Yoshiwara, of course, had its dark side, as a place where women were bought and sold.

Yes, but the oiran there weren’t simple prostitutes — they were like superstars, with a lot of impact on fashion. The kimono and accessories they wore became fashionable in the society at large. In that sense, they were the idols of women.

Not just anyone could become one — you had to have the right abilities and a lot of training. The biggest indication (of their social status) was that when clients came it was the oiran who sat in the place of honor. Also, the client couldn’t sleep with (the oiran) until he had come to see her at least three times. If she didn’t like him, though, she didn’t have to take him to her bed. And once a client had chosen an oiran, he couldn’t play with oiran from other brothels. I thought that system was interesting. Of course, it was a form of prostitution, but conditions (for prostitutes) then were very different from what they are now. I didn’t particularly want people to feel sorry for them. Instead, I wanted to show what their daily lives were like and the sort of conditions they were living in.

Do you want to make another film?

Yes, but this time, I want to do a contemporary story. My staff was always telling me about what a hard project I’d picked for my first film, but since it was my first I had nothing else to compare it with — it was just natural for me. But I’m sure that a contemporary film would be easier.

See related story:
Feminine mystique
Walking tall in the Edo Period

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