Graphic Novels & Manga

Vertical Promotions in the Time of Geisha: A Review of the Josei Manga “Sakuran”


At New York Comic Con in October, I had my first encounter with Vertical, one of a handful of independent manga publishers in the United States. As I was browsing their table of wares, one title in particular shone brightly: the metallic shine and scrawling detail that graces the cover of Sakuran by Moyoco Anno.

For those of you that don’t know, Anno is known for Edo-period character dramas written for adults, stories with their own pacing and art style. Sakuran, published in Japan in 2003 by Kodansha, is no different. But that’s exactly why it’s exemplary.

The story follows Kiyoha through her life as a geisha as it leads up to a mercurial romance, and what that romance means to her in the long run. Though the word is never used in the manga, she is a geisha, and, unlike Memoirs of a Geisha, this book focuses on the prostitution aspect.

The work is only one volume, which is always a plus in my book, though, at three-hundred pages, it gives a nice sense of value. The cover is printed with the splendor of Japanese manga, including metallic sheen in multiple colors. There are color pages on the inside as well, both things that are ambitious for a small publisher like Vertical.

However, the lettering is a bit too big for the bubbles at times, and because the translation tries too hard to be “authentic,” the meaning and subtleties are easily lost. The translation makes almost no attempt to address distinct speech patterns (crass vs. soft speech, male vs. female), so the dialogue can be extremely difficult to track when compounded with the art’s speech bubble style, which often lacks bubble tails.

This book is very good, but it is a challenging read. For the advanced reader, it’s a positive challenge that I think the American market deserves now that so many manga fans are aging into their mid-twenties, but for the younger reader, it may be too difficult of a challenge. Everything about this book, as typical with Anno’s work, requires extremely careful reading, and perhaps a character name cheat sheet.

Because she focuses so much on period accuracy, it’s often hard to tell characters of the same gender and relative age apart in Anno’s style. For example, geisha of the same rank will wear the same style clothing and hair, thus taking away major cues that would seem standard to more mainstream manga (outlandish, varied hairstyles and each character in their own, vastly different clothing), so the visual differences we are left with are the degree of tilt to an eye, or the pattern on the kimono, even with main characters such as Kiyoha and her mentor.

It is also difficult to track perspective, due to the art style and the storytelling’s fluidity with time. Important moments in Kiyoha’s development as a geisha are traced, but she, in the present, is dressed in the same style as her mentor of the past, only with a slightly different pattern. Furthermore, Kiyoha’s name, hairstyle, and eye style changes drastically in each stage of her development, so it feels a bit like always playing catch up; I suspect this would be true even for a Japanese audience. Is this, then, high-brow storytelling, or is it missing the mark? In Anno’s case, I’d call it high-brow: she expects us to catch every detail, as does the book itself.

The story for me, a veteran manga reader, was hard to appreciate until I realized that each panel tells a story. “Of course it tells a story, it’s a manga!” you might say. Usually, each cell in a manga may capture emotion, but half of them are a bridge to something else—just moving the plot, just setting the scene—showing that someone is running or wasting time daydreaming, what the season is. But, where Anno really shines as a storyteller—away from critiques of feminist literature and quirky-yet-heavy depictions of class in Edo-period life—is in the extreme “slowness” of the story’s pacing, and this is because each cell tells its own story.

I’ve been conditioned by shonen to read manga fast—maybe an entire book in half an hour. This book took me days to finish, reading an hour a time, because, like a novel that uses words so well you often have to stop and process them, there is so much thought-provoking information in each drawing in Sakuran that one must stop and consider each to get the full effect of it, and then, in turn, take a break after so many pages simply because one’s head is too full of thoughts. Each of Anno’s drawings is a paragraph, and at the end of each one must stop and consider. Kiyoha running toward the gate of the red-light district is not just illustrating that she’s escaping, trying to reach a gate. The shot is set up so that that gate, imposing, black, and low-angle, spreads out like an ink stain. It’s the symbol that even though she is so learned and cultured, she is trapped, and this imprisonment holds a stately society up. But the girl in the foreground, with wild, waving hair, is not just running—she’s fleeing. She’s not part of this “beautiful” and dark thing. Every cell is a story; with Anno, you read the lines as well as between them.

The reading’s slow, and it has to be slow if you’re to get the full effect of this book, but that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Sakuran is one of those old novels you’d read in a college class just because it’s hard to read—and it’s really good once you know how to read it. So, if you’re ready for a challenge in your manga, consider picking this one up.


One Response to “Vertical Promotions in the Time of Geisha: A Review of the Josei Manga “Sakuran””

  1. Melyndru says:

    Sakuran is about an oiran, which is a different profession than geisha. That is the time period when the geisha profession appeared out of that quarter and that they instituted changes, in order to fully show the differences in profession, through rules, clothes, accessories.

    Visually the difference is pretty obvious, as is the style of occupation.

    This is still a very good review for a very interesting series. Thanks for taking the time to review it.

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