Kiyoha is sold into a brothel as a child and finds herself rising through the ranks of the courtesans, despite her best efforts.
Manners, tradition, pomp and circumstance are often used as a mask. Just as the ‘manners’ seen in Downton Abbey were in place to enforce a strict division between haves and have-nots; the beauteous excess of costume and refined talents displayed by the Geisha of old Japan only masked the fact that they were sex slaves.
Sakuran begins with a chapter taking place after the ones that follow. The owners of the brothel beg Kiyoha to take the position of Oiran, the top courtesan of the house; the figurehead who leads a procession to draw in customers. Kiyoha is not interested. Accepting the position would mean accepting her lot in life; giving up once and for all the belief that she is not truly a part of this world.
Kiyoha’s pride is a double-edged sword. It drives her to break free, to find a life worthy of her; and yet it also drives her to stay, to prove to all the nay-sayers that she can indeed be an Oiran. She believes she is too good to be an Oiran, but she’ll be damned if anyone tells her she’s not good enough to be one. Kiyoha doesn’t run because she hopes for something, she runs because she rejects her present circumstances.
This contradiction gives the series a nicely balanced tone. If she were just a tortured slave, it would be too depressing, if she were just a hopeful would-be Oiran, it would lack drama and realism. Of course, competing desires leave Kiyoha without a particular goal in life; until a young man shows up at the brothel and wins her heart. But is her relationship with the man real, or just another mask for something far less pleasant. He is the only thing she has ever truly wanted, but the knowledge that falling in love with a man makes her just like all the other courtesans perturbs her to no end.
Sakuran is only one volume; but it is a sufficient length to tell the story. If I had one criticism, it would be that, because the story jumps ahead with each chapter and Kiyoha takes new names with each new station, it is a little hard to follow at times. A longer run would have allowed the characters to gel a little better.
The art is luscious, especially the water colored pages that open most chapters. Moyoco Anno’s art is very distinctive; like a combination of modern manga and Ukiyo-E; deceptively simple and effortless. While I wouldn’t call the series graphic, it doesn’t shy away from its subject matter; she is a prostitute, after all.
Vertical’s presentation is quite nice. The printing, including the aforementioned color pages is great, and the cover is done with a shiny silver background that makes it look rather prestigious. The sparse sound effects are translated in smaller letters beside the Japanese. There’s one page of liners notes explaining some of the terms used in the book; though given the historical setting, I would have like a lot more.
Overall, it’s a great book with a wonderfully realized character.