Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #51: Sakuran by Moyoco Anno

Kiyoha is one of the highest-paid, most respected oiran (prostitutes) in Edo's classic pleasure quarter of Yoshiwara, the pride of the Tamagiku house. But is she happy?

Well, of course not. What kind of story can you get out of a happy prostitute? (Erotica, maybe. Anything more respectable than that, forget it.)

Moyoco Anno's graphic novel Sakuran -- unlike so many manga, it tells a story complete in one volume -- sketches the story of Kiyoha's rise, from the day a grumpy, determined girl is dragged to that house by a pimp and told her new name is Tomeki, though her years as a maid and then an apprentice, to the sale of her virginity at fifteen and her rise as a popular oiran soon afterward. All of the chapters have a certain sameness to them: Kiyoha will bull her way forward, more and more with grace and strategy as she gets older and more experienced, but always as strong-willed and single-minded as that little girl she once was.

Kiyoha is self-centered, capricious, demanding, and mercurial from the beginning, and her personality doesn't change over the course of Sakuran. We are privy to some of her thoughts, but Anno keeps those limited and occasional: we mostly see Kiyoko from the outside, and she's a chilly woman who doesn't like any of the other women or girls of her house. And most of the men, to her, are bores or tedious old men or just obstacles to get past. Of course, to survive and thrive in the competitive, nasty atmosphere of an Edo-era house, a personality like Kiyoha's is a major advantage.

The only thing Kiyoko seems to enjoy is insisting on her love for the florist Sojiro, an attractive young man who is an occasional customer. And he at least leads her on to continue that play of love -- why wouldn't he? What man could resist having one of the best, most beautiful and available women of her era insist that she loves only him?

This can't end well: no story of a historical prostitute that hopes for any kind of seriousness can. Anno perhaps errs on the side of drama rather than substance, now and then, but Sakuran has an unblinking eye and a fascinating heroine to look at through that eye. In a world where female main characters have to be nice and relatable above all else, Kiyoha is like a hurricane, knocking down everything in her path and demanding attention. And it's well worth spending the time with her clients would be the first to agree.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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