Sakuran - Directed by Mika Ninagawa

Sold into the red light district as a young girl during the Edo period, foul-mouthed, spunky Kiyoha climbs the ladder to become the oiran (head courtesan) after failing to escape from the brothel. In her directorial debut, acclaimed young art photographer Mika Ninagawa brings this popular Japanese manga to the screen with lavish and vibrant period costumes and gorgeous candy-colored sets.

A period film set in the Yoshiwara red-light district of Edo (now Tokyo) doesn't sound like the easiest subject for a first-time film director. But that's Sakuran, the directorial debut by Mika Ninagawa. And she says it was the perfect material for her.

Ninagawa is best known as a photographer who creates vivid color images. She's also the daughter of Yukio Ninagawa, a renowned theater director.

"I thought about what viewers would expect from my movie, and decided they would want a moving version of my photos with the same vividness." she says. "Sakuran is a story about a glittering, superficial world. It's also a period drama, which leaves more room for fantasy than contemporary drama. Nobody in that period is still alive--though of course there are records and I studied them--so it was easier to steer the movie toward what I'm good at."

The finished product fully meets expectations. The women are dressed in colorful kimono, and their rooms are decorated with gold and silver screens. A parade scene is particularly spectacular, as the heroine (played by Anna Tsuchiya) is dressed in the best of the best kimono and super impractical platform footwear. She's followed by her juniors and assistants and the crowd admires the oiran--the title of top-ranking prostitutes in Yoshiwara--as she slowly passes by.

According to Ninagawa, the oiran is more than a prostitute. "The oiran is a kind of superstar. She's a trendsetter admired by women as well as men. People wanted the same design of kimono as the oiran wore, and they tried to copy her hairstyle. The oiran also had to be intellectual," she says.

The movie follows the progress of a girl called Kiyoha. She's independent and tough, but also beautiful, and soon becomes popular with clients. She falls in love with a naive young man from a merchant family (Hiroki Narimiya), but finds herself under attack from a senior courtesan called Takao (Yoshino Kimura) who is jealous of her up-and-coming rival. There's also Wakagiku (Minami), who pretends to be a faithful friend to Kiyoha but actually helps Takao.

The movie was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last week.

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The structure is a typical romantic movie, which is not surprising because it is based on a manga. "I've read the original and loved it. The story is set in the Edo period [1603-1867], but I think today's women will see real parallels with their own experiences," she says. "At one time or another, most women are bitchy like Wakagiku, or have loved someone so much that they want to kill him."

Tsuchiya is great as the butt-kicking oiran, just as she was in her breakthrough performance as a punk girl in Shimotsuma Monogatari (2004). But it was the former model's sensitive side that Ninagawa counted on. "Anna and I have known each other for a long time. I was doing photo shoots with her back when she was 14 or 15. When I first saw Shimotsuma, Anna was so Anna. But I knew her sensitive side as much as the strong side. So I thought she'd be able to do this part," Ninagawa says. "She was mellower than I thought. She was quiet and subtle in a good way."

But it does not mean Kiyoha is an innocent girl, of course, and the movie has several sexual scenes which seem bold for this type of girly film.

Ninagawa says: "I was not particularly interested in shooting love scenes, but I knew it would be awkward if a story about Yoshiwara didn't have one. I thought that would suck--after all, this is a town where people come to have sex. If I see a movie where sex is obviously supposed to be happening, but the kimono never comes off, then I just find it artificial and I can't concentrate on the story any more." So she told the actresses in Sakuran exactly what she expected from them. "Maybe they trusted me because I'm a woman, too."

Ninagawa says she knew good visuals would be a key factor, but she put relatively little effort into that part of the production because it was the one part in which she had "absolute confidence" in her abilities. She was more concerned about the story and character development, and how to express her own thoughts. Compared with a photo shoot, which involved no more than four or five crew members, a film shoot involves a crew of about 200. While photo crew members usually know her well and can quickly figure out what she wants without much explanation, making a film required a whole new way of thinking and communicating. "On the set, only 20 percent of my energy went to creative work, and 80 percent to communication," she says.

But she didn't seek advice or ask for reactions to the finished work from her theater director father who also has directed films. "I've seen his works, and I believe he's seen my photographs, but we never talk about them," she says. "I've never been in his rehearsal studio or film set because we both have a sort of unspoken agreement that the place of creation is a sanctuary into which not even family members should intrude."

Now that she's done a period film, Ninagawa is ready for a contemporary drama. She says: "Everybody told me how tough this project [Sakuran] would be, but this is my first one, so this is all I know. Now the same people say it's going to be much easier next time."