Today I get to talk about a brand new One Volume Wonder for the 12 Reviews of Christmas, which was not only one of many new titles from Vertical, but one of my most anticipated releases of the year. Did this title live up to my expectations?
SAKURAN (Derangement), by Moyocco Anno. First published in 2001, and first published in North America in 2012.
PLOT: During the Edo period, a young girl named Kiyoha is sold to a brothel to serve as a maid to one of the many oiran within. Kiyoha is fierce, independent, and downright feral at times, and her brash mouth and brassy ways earns her many a punishment. Still, her tenacity allows her to not only survive, but rise through to ranks to oiran, and she becomes as famed for her cynical smile as she is for her beauty. Kiyoha is still not satisfied with her life, and yearns for life outside of prostitution. She is given a chance at it when she enters into an affair with an artist, but she may find out that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the brothel gate.
STORY: From the moment this title was announced, I was eager to get my hands on it. As I always say, good josei is hard thing to get in the USA, and a new title from Moyocco Anno (creator of josei series such as Happy Mania and Flowers & Bees) is something to get very hyped for.
In Sakuran, we are presented with the compelling life story of Kiyoha, whose life looks glamorous and alluring but the reality is anything but that. While we meet her as an adult, much of the volume is spent in flashback, showing Kiyoha's rise from mere maid to top ranked oiran of her house. Kiyoha is at once fascinating but difficult to love or admire. She is quick-tempered, blunt, and spiteful to those around her. She is also shockingly self-possessed even as a poor, abused child. She also never quite grows out of her feral qualities, such as the way she hungrily gobbles down her food or the way she will try to stare down anyone who crosses her. She is fascinating because of her flaws, and it's equally fascinating to watch her adapt and change as she grows. We meet many others along the way, prostitute and customer alike, but none of them can compare to the force of nature that is Kiyoha.
Once the backstory catches up with the introduction, we then watch as a now tempestuous, teenaged Kiyoha is tempted with the promise of life beyond the brothel. The only way for an oiran to leave the brothel is to be bought by a customer to serve as either wife or mistress, and when Kiyoha starts to grow fond of her artist, her dissatisfaction and restlessness reaches its peak. Without spoiling too much about the ending, I will say that it is most certainly unexpected. It's not happy and fluffy, but it still manages a strange sort of positivity about itself and it works with the cynical tone of the story as a whole. It's not a happily ever after, but neither does it milk the situation for melodrama and brings things to an oddly satisfying conclusion.
ART: Anno's artstyle takes some getting used to, but those who can get past her somewhat strange style will find a lot to enjoy.
Anno's character designs are not conventionally attractive. Her women tend to have enormous, wide-spaced, doe-like eyes, ones that seem too big for their heads. She are not the shiny cartoony kind you see in shoujo; these are deep, dark, and frequently jaded. She gets a lot of subtle expression and emotion out of those eyes, through the drop of a lid or the angle of a stare.
Anno also puts a lot of effort into the details of Kiyoha's world, both the exquisite and the mundane. The wardrobes of the prostitutes are elaborate, loaded with textures, patterns, layers, and accessories, and each piece, each hairstyle, and each title comes loaded with meaning. She puts a similiar sort of level of detail into the brothel itself, in both the public spaces for the customer and the much more grimy and mundane places behind the scenes. Because of that level of detail, the panel and page composition is simple and straightforward. I do need to note that there is a lot of nudity (including full-frontal) and sexuality in this manga - its 18+ rating is well-earned. That's not a surprise considering the setting, and it's always presented in a non-titilating manner. It's a strange sort of irony, but while Sakuran is loaded with flesh, it's actually less erotic than your average fanservice fest.
PRESENTATION: Vertical went all-out with this release. We don't get just a few color pages in the front, they're added at the front of every chapter. The cover is also notable with its bright, foiled color images.
Sakuran is much like Kiyoha herself: beautiful, cynical, but ultimately satisfying. Anyone craving some fine, complex, and adult (in both senses of the word) storytelling should pick this title up post-haste.
This series is published in the USA by Vertical. It is currently in print.
Want a chance to win a copy of this and the Volume 1 of 5 other series? Leave a comment to enter the 12 Reviews of Christmas Giveaway here!