Monday, July 30, 2012
When Vertical, Inc. first announced that they would print Moyoco Anno's 'Sakuran' in English, I didn't think anything of it. I had skimmed her other series, 'Sugar Sugar Rune', at the library, and it didn't seem like my thing and the premise of 'Sakuran' didn't grab my attention either. It wasn't until I saw an extended preview of 'Sakuran' that I was immediately sold on the art alone. Now, after reading and getting the whole picture, I can't say I've exactly become a die hard fan of Moyoco Anno or 'Sakuran'.
Kiyoha is a a young woman working in the pleasure quarters in 1800's Japan, but she wasn't always one of the top courtesans like she is now. Parents drowned in a river and sold into a brothel, stubborn and feisty Kiyoha made the transformation from maid in training Tomeki, to courtesans apprentice O-Rin, and all the way up to Oiren Kiyoha. This unlikely and unwanted success didn't come easy. Beatings, dead friends, and lost lovers stained her path through life that she was given no choice in taking. 'Sakuran' explores that sad life of courtesans that is stealthily hidden from the clientele behind fancy makeup, luxurious kimonos, and fake smiles.
This manga kind of reads like a lesson in how the Japanese courtesan world works, and at the same time, acts as a coming of age story for Tomeki/O-Rin/Kiyoha. It's interesting that the women get a new name for each stage of their life at the brothel. From maid to apprentice to courtesan. Getting a new name really fits with their way of life, seeing as how different each stage is. They almost get a new identity. Though Kiyoha never lost her unique and independent personality. For that, I am glad, because it is that personality that was the main appeal of this manga for me. Growing up in a time period and profession that favors obedient and submissive women, Kiyoha more than goes against the grain in regard to what is expected of her. She's loud, rude, ill-tempered, ill-mannered and causes a bit of trouble wherever she goes. Seeing how she applies her rebel attitude to various situations to get through this sad, unwanted life was my sole source of entertainment while reading this book. And her very dynamic reactions and facial expressions communicate just as much information as the dialogue and partially make up for how boring that dialogue could be.
I liked Kiyoha as a character, but there were two times when I thought this character could have been better utilized. One was when all of a sudden, after a seemingly short time-skip, she is friends with a fellow apprentice courtesan. We hardly get any interaction between the two, the friend dies, and I have no time to care. This is a missed opportunity in my opinion. I would have liked to see that friendship develop, but all we get is another harsh lesson in the life of a Japanese whore. Another instance that I thought was a missed opportunity was when Kiyoha is suddenly in love with a man who she only met twice. The first time she served him sake and brushed his hand with hers. The second time, he told her his name and bit her nipple. True love I tell you! Anyway, jokes aside, I would have liked to see this and other relationships develop more. Everyone in this manga is kind of cold and living in a harsh reality. No one really being friends with each other. I think that's why I found the dialogue so drab.
This manga has one feature that will really get it's hooks in you, and that's the art. Specifically, the colored art interspersed throughout the book. The color pages are stunning. The last manga color pages that I can remember staring at for this long was probably Vagabond, which probably has my favorite art in manga, so this is about the highest compliment I can give to Moyoco Anno's art. Though while the regular, black and white art is more than satisfactory, it is unremarkable compared to the color pages. The style is the same, but it isn't as flawlessly neat or detailed as the color work, which is fine. Like I said, it is more than satisfactory. I just couldn't help but to notice the difference in quality. Also, there were a few times when I got characters mixed up because some of the girls look too much a like. With all the courtesans having practically the same hair style, and very similar eyes and lips, their differently designed kimonos are their most distinguishing feature. I was only momentarily confused just a few times, but even so, this is one of my biggest peeves of manga art. I recommend heading over to Comics Alliance where they share a 15 page, exclusive preview of 'Sakuran', so that you can sample the art for yourself.
I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. I heard nothing but good things about it prior to reading it myself, and I was sold on the art alone. It didn't quite live up to my expectations though. I enjoyed the great art and the interesting main character, but this story was bogged down by mostly boring dialogue. While I definitely don't think my reading this book was a complete waste, to be perfectly honest, it's just not good enough for me recommend you spend $17 for a single volume story. Instead, take that $17 and go get a volume of 'Ooku:The Inner Chambers' or 'Vagabond' if you are looking for some Japanese historical manga.