Kiyoha is a high ranking courtesan in the Edo-era pleasure district Yoshiwara. Becoming one of the top courtesans was a long, arduous journey. As a child, Kiyoha was sold to the brothel Tamagiku, where she was immediately put to work as a maid. Due to her rebellious nature, sharp wit, and short temper, Kiyoha was constantly in trouble. She was also proud and stubborn, which caused the other maids and the working courtesans to dislike her. She would often attempt to escape, but every attempt was somehow thwarted, and eventually one of the courtesans in the house convinced her to stage her war within the brothel. That Kiyoha belonged there, it was her fate to become a courtesan, and since she couldn’t escape it, she should make the best of it and put her stubbornness to good use. The brothel went through several Oiran (top ranked courtesan of the house) as Kiyoha grew up, and she learned different lessons from each of them. She was also watched over (in a distanced sort of way) by Tamagiku’s chief clerk, Seiji. Soshi taught her some of the hardest and best lessons, like how she would always be hated for the things she had that others did not, or that she might as well use her difficult personality to climb to the top. Kiyoha took the advice and started working hard to improve her lot in life. She even made friends with a fellow apprentice, the only person she allowed herself to share her sorrows with. Unfortunately, O-Some could not handle her grief, and abandoned Kiyoha in the worst possible way. Kiyoha persevered, however, and eventually entered into a rivalry with her “older sister,” the beautiful and popular Mikumo. Through Mikumo, she met Bunzaemon Konoya, an old man who favored Mikumo and enjoyed teasing Kiyoha. Konoya frequently visited Kiyoha, checking on her progress, and eventually became the man that bought her virginity. Kiyoha’s next lesson was on love, as one of her fellow courtesans fell in love with a neighborhood florist. Their business is a game of love, deceit, truth, and lies, a lesson Kiyoha learns personally when she falls in love with a man named Sojiro.
The world of Sakuran is dark, lonely, and heartbreaking. Yet Moyoco Anno, and by proxy Kiyoha, keeps this story from becoming a depressing tale of unfortunate women and circumstance. Kiyoha isn’t exactly happy with her lot in life; in fact, she starts out hating it to her very bones. Eventually she embraces it, realizing that it’s better to be ambitious in the life she’s been given, rather than attempt to escape into a world that is foreign to her. She learns to use her born-into talents – her wit, her pride, her fighting spirit – to get by in a world that could easily eat her alive. She’s filled with spunk, which is quite a departure from the normally icy and stoic courtesans that make up the top ranks. Which, rather than work against her, makes her stand out more, along with her striking beauty and man-killer smile. And the way she seems to know just how to turn her head, just when to make the right sounds, how to breathe, how to move against a man. There’s only slight indication that she may have been taught such things directly; the rest she appears to have learned while observing the other courtesans as she grew up, or is able to do by instinct. Regardless, it makes her a very popular courtesan. At least until she falls in love and loses all desire to entertain other men. Which is a serious problem when that’s your job. Again, though, she appears to have learned from observing other courtesans what such a thing can do, how love can destroy a person who must sell their body every night. And she’s helped along by a fellow courtesan, who has experienced the same, and wants Kiyoha to be as miserable as she. The story reminded me a lot of Memories of a Geisha, but darker, and less romantic. And the spunky, outspoken Kiyoha is a far cry from the demure Sayuri (also, Kiyoha is an Oiran, while Sayuri is a Geisha). The art in Sakuran is sharp, though the girls are somewhat generic. Not in general, just not easily distinguishable from each other. It’s not always easy to tell which character is on the page. But Anno’s art is quite expressive, and there’s a lot of detail across these 300 pages, particularly in the kimono the characters wear. She also manages to tell a story about prostitutes and the business of sex without it becoming vulgar or explicit. So while it’s definitely a mature read, you don’t have to be embarrassed over reading it on the train. Vertical has put together a really beautiful book here. The cover is gorgeous and covered with a metallic sheen. There are also some very beautiful color pages scattered throughout, which unfortunately seem to have a tendency to fall out. While reviewing this book, two sets of color pages simply fell off the binding and came loose. Disappointing, especially from an otherwise outstanding company like Vertical. Still, the companies that would take a chance on a title like this are rare (I can think of only two others who might bother), so I’m happy to get to read it at all.