~by Moyoco Anno
Sakuran: Blossoms Wild by Moyoco Anno was initially serialized in the manga magazine Evening between 2001 and 2003 before being collected into a single volume in Japan in 2003. The English-language edition of Sakuran was published by Vertical in 2012. It's a physically beautiful volume with a foil color and retaining Anno's color pages. The previous manga by Anno to be released in English, the final volume of Sugar Sugar Rune, was published in 2008. Four years later, I was thrilled to finally have more of Anno's work available in English. Except for her short manga "The Song of the Crickets," collected in the anthology Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, Sakuran is currently the only historical period piece by Anno in English; her other manga all take place in contemporary settings. Although I'm only now getting around to actually reviewing Sakuran for the Moyoco Anno Manga Moveable Feast, I was very excited for its release.
Kiyoha is one of the highest-ranking courtesans in Yoshiwara, the pleasure district in Edo. She hasn't always held that position, though. Bought as a young girl by Tamagiku House, Kiyoha began her service as a maid but her good looks and cleverness made her an ideal choice to become an apprentice courtesan. Kiyoha's willfulness and lack of social graces prove problematic and her attempts to escape Tamagiku lead to her being severely punished. Life in Yoshiwara is an extremely difficult one and the women who live there have very little control over their own existences. Kiyoha, like so many of the other courtesans, is both admired and hated. It's a harsh world. Every glimmer of hope, as few of them as there are, is accompanied by sadness, heartbreak, and tragedy. And yet Kiyoha perseveres.
Sakuran is one of the most realistic and honest portrayals of sex work in Edo-era Japan that I've come across in manga or in fiction in general. No doubt Sakuran is sensual, but the brothels and the lives of the courtesans haven't been glamorized or romanticized. The story is almost matter-of-fact in its presentation. There is explicit sexual content in Sakuran, which probably shouldn't be too surprising considering the manga's subject matter, but Anno handles it very tastefully. Even though the women in Sakuran are largely powerless, forced to work within a system not of their own choosing, they are also incredibly strong. Becoming a high-ranking courtesan had its benefits but also carried with it a tremendous amount of responsibility. Supporting their houses and those who served them was often a thankless job.
Before reading Sakuran, I had never seen any of Anno's color work. I am very glad that Vertical kept the color pages for the English release of the volume because they are gorgeous. Some might find Anno's art style to be ugly, but it is also exquisitely elegant. I love it. I've always been a fan of Anno's distinctive artwork, but Sakuran is particularly arresting visually. Anno has an interest in fashion and Sakuran allows her to really let loose. The attention she gives to the details of the elaborate kimono and intricate hairstyles and their accessories is stunning. Sakuran is a beautiful manga. It may only be a single volume, but that also means it's more immediately accessible than her longer series. Sakuran is one of Anno's more serious and sophisticated works, but I also think it's one of her strongest overall. Simply put, Sakuran is marvelous.