Sakuran: Blossoms Wild

I was curious to see this single-volume historical manga by Moyoco Anno after reading her Happy Mania series. (She’s also had Flowers and Bees translated over here.) Sakuran promised to be similar to Happy Mania in its portrayal of a strong-willed but messed-up woman, only this one had kimonos and a more explicit use of sex as a transaction.

Kiyoha is a child slave at a brothel who eventually, out of stubbornness, rises to become a leading courtesan during the 1800s. Unfortunately, I found the story itself rather confusing. The various chapters make up different incidents in Kiyoha’s life, but they don’t come together into one coherent whole.

I also found it difficult to follow the various titles used to refer to the characters in lieu of their names. It took several readings before I could follow who grew up into whom. That’s not the only way that Sakuran is a dense work. The art can be crowded, and the text refers to some events elliptically.

I wanted many more cultural and historical notes than the single page of translations (eight entries) that we get. I think that would have given me more connection with the world we’re suddenly thrust into. Others may have issue with Anno’s unique art style, although I’m fond of the “eggs with huge eyes” look; it reminds me of fashion illustration. Katherine Dacey presents several pages in her review, as well as providing more historical context that I found helpful. There are more pages posted at Comics Alliance.

I didn’t enjoy reading this book because I don’t appreciate the “she’s a bitch, so she will be a great courtesan” attitude. It all seems very remote and artificial to me. There’s also a lot of unhappiness and unpleasantness in this work, from the forced child maids to the problems of sex as a career. I should have expected as much, perhaps, although hearing of a story about geisha leads one to other (culturally biased) expectations. In contrast, Vertical’s presentation is quite attractive, with a foil cover and color opening pages on several chapters, not just the first.

I’m glad this work was translated and made available, just to demonstrate the variety of manga out there, but I’d rather see more modern josei works exploring the lives of today’s women. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


  1. Interesting post, Johanna. I have a French translation of this title, which reflects some of the linguistic nuances more easily (for instance, colloquial French retains the distinction between the formal and informal “you”), but I do agree about the lack of an ongoing narrative in the earlier chapters – perhaps they’re best thought of as short stories with recurring characters.

    As for the general atmosphere, by all accounts the Yoshiwara (the prostitutes’ quarter of Edo / Tokyo) was indeed a world to itself, where even sex was governed by strict rules of etiquette. The jealousy and competitiveness among the courtesans and the brutal punishments inflicted for the smallest fault are, unfortunately, not exaggerated (see e.g. Sayo Masuda’s Autobiography of a Geisha or Junichi Saga’s Memories of Silk and Straw for first-hand accounts). I do feel it’s a pity, though, that Anno never completed the projected second volume of this manga – I’d like to have seen what, or who, Kiyoha became.

    Perhaps the whole thing can be summed up by a poem supposedly written by an 18th-century courtesan, commenting on the hardships endured by Daruma (a disciple of the Buddha) who meditated for nine years until he lost the use of his legs: “What are nine years? Ten years in this world of suffering dressed in a flower robe”.

  2. Thanks for providing some of the context I was missing. I appreciate it.

  3. Oh, I didn’t know there was a manga.
    I only knew the movie: – an adaptation of the manga apparently.

  4. Perhaps the most structurally confusing part is that the first chapter is apparently a flash-forward as far as the rest of the book is concerned. After that, the successive chapters seem to follow the protagonist’s career in chronological order up until shortly before the first chapter. Another confusing element is that her name changes from Tomeki when she first starts out as a maid, to O-Rin when she becomes an apprentice, to Kiyoha once she’s considered more or less an adult.

    One aspect of the plot/background that could have used a lot more explanation in the footnotes was exactly what it meant for a girl in one of these fancy Yoshiwara houses of prostitution to “make her debut.” Even who paid for the festivities associated with the debut seemed to vary depending on who people were trying to make Kiyoha act grateful to or respectful of. At one point, interested bystanders(?) were admiringly discussing how much money the guy who’d won the right to be Kiyoha’s “first” was spending to launch her in style as an official shinzo/oiran-in-training, giving her/the house a small fortune’s worth of luxury fabrics, etc. But later in the same chapter, the madam was attempting to impress upon Kiyoha that she should be appreciative of her “big sister” mentor, since said “big sister” was shouldering the cost of her debut. There’s probably a certain amount of truth to both versions, but it would have been nice if the endnotes had shed some light on the apparent contradiction.

    So much fuss was made over various regular customers (most of them middle-aged or even elderly men) competing to be Kiyoha’s “first” that I assumed that this was pretty much the equivalent of the Brooke Shields character’s virginity being auctioned off in the 1980’s(?) movie “Pretty Baby,” about a budding prostitute in nineteenth century New Orleans. But weeks after the issue has been settled and men have been lining up outside the house to hire Kiyoha’s services, one of the management staff at the place comments on how “she’ll be deflowered in the new year.” (The timing of this may or may not have something to do with the fact that at this point in Japanese history, everyone automatically became a year older at new year’s, no matter which month they were actually born in. So possibly the management was waiting until Kiyoha officially reached a certain age before allowing customers to go all the way with her.)

    If this defloration reference means what it sounds like, it seems as if all the hot and heavy competition to be with Kiyoha up to that point has involved non-penetrative sexual acts such as blow jobs. It’s not really clear from the art, since most of the more explicit nude scenes tend to involve Kiyoha’s observations of the older “big sister” prostitutes at work, and I can only recall one rather closely-cropped scene in which Kiyoha puts her earlier instructions on how to give a blow job into practice.

    One more thing that the endnotes fail to make clear–I’m pretty sure that oiran/courtesans and geisha are not synonymous. Technically, geisha were just high-class female companions/performers for hire, something like a more upscale version of the hostesses who chat with and flatter big-spending men at modern day Japanese hostess clubs. Of course, as apparently often happens with many hostess club employees as well, geisha often wound up becoming major customers’ mistresses, or simply negotiating to perform additional sexual services on the side. (Their official duties ran more toward providing witty conversation and performing various forms of traditional music and dance.)

    Oiran, on the other hand, didn’t have that option. Sex was an integral part of their job description. Although whether and with whom a geisha added sexual favors to her official services may not have always been her personal choice, either, since both types of “floating world” female demimondaines tended to operate out of very hierarchical houses where most decisions were made by management, not the actual women most affected by them.

  5. You should have written the endnotes! Or an essay explaining more of this to potential readers. Thank you!

  6. Yes – at the time of this story, oiran were the highest grade of prostitute in a classification which went all the way down to the streetwalkers (“nighthawks”) who wandered the riverbanks and alleyways with a straw mat under their arms, ready to unroll for five minutes in the shadow of a wall or boat. There had been a still higher rank, “tayu”, but the expense of their maintenance to a patron was so great that they ceased to exist at some point in the 17th century. Courtesans did receive training in the arts (music, dance and even poetry and painting), but as Marfisa says the primary role of geisha was as professional entertainers – they were rigorously trained from a very early age, and many seem to have taken real pride in their accomplishments.

  7. I read this after I read the first volume of Flowers and Bees and had a lot of the same problems I had with that volume (overly cynical attitude and just came off as a little too impressed with it’s self). But than agin that could just be how I interpreted things and not the author’s intent.

  8. Moyoco Anno also authored Sugar Sugar Rune from Del Rey, and I think it’s complete.

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  10. […] a number of series translated into English, each from a different publisher, including the newest, Sakuran: Blossoms Wild (Vertical), an historical manga about a courtesan; the josei series Happy Mania (Tokyopop); the […]

  11. […] out an intriguing-sounding manga in February. Insufficient Direction is the story of Moyoco Anno (Sakuran, Happy Mania) getting involved with and eventually marrying director Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis […]

  12. […] summer 2012, Sakuran: Blossoms Wild by Moyoco Anno (author of Happy […]

  13. […] art is simpler than in Anno’s other books, Happy Mania and Sakuran, as suits what’s more of a gag manga. The characters, particularly Rompers, who has line […]

  14. […] brought several of Moyoco Anno’s manga to our shores, including the historical portrait Sakuran: Blossoms Wild and the biography-inspired comedy Insufficient Direction. Previously, we’ve seen the dark […]

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