Sakuran Review: Silk Hiding Steel

The subject of prostitution is a growing topic in this day and age, helped by the growing problem of illegal sex trafficking in certain countries.  Modern media paints the topic of prostitution in a negative and bleak manner, whether displaying it in a modern setting or from a historical standpoint. Today’s subject, 2001’s Sakuran, shows prostitution from the latter’s setting during Japan’s Edo period.

Sakuran was originally published in Japan’s Evening magazine from 2001-2003, and later received a live-action movie adaptation in 2007. The manga was created by Moyoco Anno, wife of Hideaki Anno, best known for her magical girl series Sugar Sugar Rune. Additionally, Anno is well-known in Japan for her works aimed at an adult audience, such as Happy Mania and Hataraki Man, both of which received live-action TV drama adaptations.

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Sakuran is set during the Edo period of Japan in the red-light district of Yoshiwara, and focuses on a woman named Kiyoha, a high-ranking courtesan of a brothel in said district. Although she is somewhat infamous for her assertive, stubborn personality, Kiyoha is ranked fairly high in the brothel for a courtesan of her level. Following the death of the brothel’s eldest courtesan, Kiyoha is chosen to take over the brothel and shoulder the responsibilities of competing with other pleasure quarters, much to her displeasure.

The remainder of Sakuran is framed in a “how we got here” manner, focusing on Kiyoha’s back story, starting from when she was a lowly child maid dragged and sold into the Yoshiwara district after her parents died. When her attempt at an escape from the brothel failed, Kiyoha (then named ‘Tomeki’) vowed to become the highest-ranked courtesan someday, against the odds of the maids and workers who mocked her. As the story progresses through Kiyoha’s adolescence and her training as a courtesan-to-be, the events that shape her character come into play, from her friendship with O-Some, rivalry with courtesan Mikumo, and brief romance with client Sojiro.

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At first, Sakuran starts off in a somewhat hectic manner, trying to establish the general setting as well as Kiyoha’s personality, and then immediately veering off into sudden drama with Kiyoha being chosen to take over the brothel. The initial chapters that focus on Kiyoha’s childhood spent as a maid feel quite rushed, which makes some of the more dramatic moments rather moot, such as a scene focusing on the death of a young Kiyoha’s friend O-Some. Fortunately, the story’s pacing improves as it starts focusing on Kiyoha’s adolescence, and remains fairly consistent to the end. Despite the rough start, Sakuran is easy to follow, and the drama that peppers the story helps to highlight the contrast between the luxury and tragedy that haunts Kiyoha throughout her life.

Anno’s art brings out the setting of the manga very well, with her attention to detail ranging from wooden textures in backgrounds to the intricate patterns on kimonos. The splash pages are nicely colored, making use of strong red, orange, and pink watercolors rather than subtle tones. The only big drawback to Anno’s art is her character designs, as it is difficult to differentiate specific characters from each other due to them having very subtle differences in terms of facial features. Quite notably, one of the few ways one can differentiate Kiyoha from the other female characters is simply from the fact that she sneers a good amount of the time. Fortunately, while Anno’s case of “same-face syndrome” is a bit distracting, the afflicted characters in question are usually only relevant for a chapter or two.

Pros: Easy to follow, and straightforward in terms of plot. Drama is integrated into the story fairly well and doesn’t feel like something out of a daytime soap opera. Anno’s art is detailed and her splash pages have nice colors.

Cons: Pacing is rushed at the beginning, which ruins some of the more emotional moments covered during Kiyoha’s youth. Characters look too much alike and can be difficult to differentiate. It doesn’t really have an “ending” as much as the story just stops abruptly.

Sakuran is licensed and published in the U.S. by Vertical, Inc., and available in one complete volume. Sakuran is an all-around solid manga with an intriguing story and wonderful art. If you ever find yourself in the mood for a more mature subjected manga with a resilient (but not overbearing) female protagonist, perhaps Sakuran will be to your liking.

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Categories: Manga

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