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Sakuran: Blossoms Wild
posted August 6, 2012

imageCreator: Moyoco Anno
Publishing Information: Vertical, softcover, 308 pages, July 2012, $16.95
Ordering Numbers: 1935654454 (ISBN10) 9781935654452 (ISBN13)

Sakuran: Blossoms Wild is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating work from Moyoco Anno, a popular comics creator (particularly with young women) who also works as a fashion writer. It is set in the world of oiran, which I now understand via the Internet to be a class of courtesan/entertainer that grew to prominence in 17th Century Japanese urban centers and which have since settled into cultural memory as a kind of more rarified and extravagant precursor to the geisha. (I also learned that "Sakuran" means "derangement" and that "Blossoms Wild" means, well, actually I don't know; it sounds like a subtitle from a made-for-Cinemax movie, though.) This handsomely mounted Vertical effort tracks the development of one high-ranking oiran named Kiyoha from her time as a maid, through her training, and into the early stages of performing sexual transactions. It is a deceptively staged book, attractive in a decorative sense -- the movie adaptation must be something to see -- and full of a kind of curious acting made possible by the cartoonist's ability to make subtle grotesques of her figures.

Beauty is a prime concern of Sakuran: Blossoms Wild. Anno makes clear early on and reinforces the point several times thereafter that Kiyoha's attractiveness is a baseline virtue against which the others all react. At the same time, Anno plays off of the exaggerations of her figure-drawing choices with strident body language, oppressive backgrounds, even physical contortion. This both helps make whatever individual point Anno wants to about Kiyoha's strong personality or about the severity of a situation faced, but also sets up a value system that is at once lovely and bizarrely horrible. The best moments spent with Sakuran: Blossoms Wild are often just staring at the thing, flinching at one panel in a series of more typically beautiful ones. There's a great page where Kiyoha's genteel virtues begin to be described that by the last panel shows her learning explicit oral sex skills to go with the singing voice and the warm intelligence. It's a slightly jarring transition; my guess is it's supposed to be.

Why a guess? Here's the thing: I'm not sure I'm all the way equipped to figure out the full measure of this work's subtleties, and I think that unlike my relative comfort with the visual elements in play I could use more information to figure out various textures inherent to the narrative. Some of that ignorance could have been taken care of by a different presentation: I had to go casting about a bit for some of the descriptive context above and I imagine a lot of readers and reviewers will wonder if that kind of thing should have been provided more explicitly. Without understanding those nuances about exactly what it is Kiyoha is experiencing, what she's pushing back against, what's left is a picture painted from broad clichés about plucky heroines in rigid worlds, both those where sex is commodified and those were this is unpacked metaphorically. Our lead is spirited and strangely modern. She's involved with people that are at once generous but want something. She has a lover that's both kind and distant. For all the conflict that takes place here on a fundamental level -- and this book puts on the page a kind of constant, churning, turmoil -- there's nothing that really surprises about the unfolding narrative boiled down to its basics of character and motivation. I suspect that there are elements to the story where Anno perhaps wanted to communicate a universality to Kiyoha's experience, both in their details and their evocation of other works. What gets lost is an idiosyncratic spark to any of the characters to match the uniqueness of the art. That element, that freshness, might be there for those with a greater understanding of this world; I couldn't tell you. It felt sort of standard and pre-packaged to me, which given the shearing nature of the way many of the stories are executed feels a shame.