Mika Ninagawa began her career as a photographer, and that background is clearly evident in Sakuran, her directorial debut. Every frame is an immaculately crafted work of art, from the vibrant colors to the moody lighting to the immersive compositions—even basic establishing shots exhibit a depth and texture reminiscent of the legendary Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography. This splendorous style doesn't lack substance, however; the visuals consistently motivate the narrative and serve the central themes. The women of Yoshiwara, for example, are frequently juxtaposed with goldfish—trapped within claustrophobic prisons outside of which they cannot survive—and cherry blossom petals—beautiful for a fleeting instant, but soon enough crushed underfoot; whether they spend their entire lives as courtesans or become the wives of wealthy samurai, they will never be truly free.
There is, of course, a world of difference between static images and moving pictures; fortunately, Sakuran is anything but inert. The camerawork is bold and fluid, the editing precise yet energetic. Several scenes feature an almost hypnotic, musical rhythm that perfectly complements Ringo Sheena’s soundtrack, which consists primarily of J-pop, rock, and jazz. Rather than feeling anachronistic, these thoroughly modern aesthetic flourishes lend the movie a timeless quality, despite its obvious period setting.
Ultimately, I would describe Sakuran as an exercise in pure filmmaking; sure, I can summarize its plot and dissect its characters, but at the end of the day, it is a sensual experience; it must be seen to be properly understood.