Ugh, you guys. 2014 has been kicking me in the face, hence the lack of posting here. If I was thirty-three, I would totally be buying into the whole concept of Japanese yakudoshi, but fortunately for my skeptical self, my worst years have been wholly unconnected with my supposed yakudoshi. Even more fortunately, no matter how much the year tries to kick my teeth in, my brain and I still have books! So many books! So many books that it actually becomes a little intimidating and depressing, since clearly, I will never get to read them. Uh-oh, mortality.
But no matter how mortal I am (very) or how bad the year is (worse), I still have the wonderment of comics fun that is TCAF. Have I told you about TCAF? Have I perhaps mentioned it once or twice? No? Then you don’t know that I am the OFFICIAL INTERPRETER. (I really need to get cards with that stamped officiously below my name.) And this year I will be officially interpreting for none other than brain favourite est em. Exciting! But she is not the only Japanese guest! Moyoco Anno will also be in attendance. Even more exciting!
And as is my way, I have been studying up, getting ready for all the Japanese adventures I’m sure to have. As I’ve demonstrated here, I am pretty up to date with est em’s entire catalogue (although book four of Golondrina is sitting on my shelf waiting for me), but my history with Moyoco Anno is a little patchier. So I decided to go back to the book I had read years ago, back when my Japanese was still a little baby Japanese, a book I have always regretted not hauling across the ocean with me when I returned to Canada after too many years in Japan: Sakuran.
When I read this the first time, I’m sure I missed out on a ton of details because my Japanese was definitely still a little baby, barely able to walk on her own. The torture of trying to express any nuanced feelings in my second (actually, fifth, but it’s climbed the ranks to be second in fluency at this point) language was still something I felt keenly. And while Sakuran is not the most nuanced of books, essentially being the coming-of-age story of an old-timey hooker, there are a lot of details that make that story richer and more thought-provoking.
Actually, I’m doing Sakuran an injustice by suggesting that it’s not nuanced. It’s just easy for even a casual reader to pick up on the larger elements of it. Plucky kid is sold to a brothel, where she works her way up the ranks from maid to attendant to famed courtesan. Even if your Japanese is non-existent, you’ll probably be able to glean that just from the pictures. Where it all gets interesting is all the stuff between the lines, the very social structure itself and the system that put that plucky kid in that position to begin with.
Until prostitution was outlawed after the second world war, if you were looking to buy yourself a lady (or a dude; they were there too), you could just head over to Yoshiwara and do some window shopping before making your selection. (Now you have to go to soaplands or order some delivery health. It is a much bigger hassle and you don’t always know what you’re getting.) The brothels of Yoshiwara were very different from the kind of streetwalking most people think of when they hear the word “prostitute”. Although the women were basically owned by the brothels that had purchased them from their parents or from roving slavers who bought children from their parents (dark times, Japan), they wielded some weirdly serious power as the top of the food chain in the pleasure quarters. After all, they were the reason all those dudes were coming to Yoshiwara in the first place.
It’s this contrast between mastery and slavery that I found really interesting on my latest reading of Sakuran (a copy of which was, of course, procured at one of my favourite bookstores in Nakano). Anno makes her plucky heroine, who eventually ends up with the name Kiyoha (as in every traditional Japanese profession, she goes through a series of names as she rises in the ranks), push at this line. As the top courtesan in the pleasure quarters, Kiyoha makes a lot of money and wields a correspondingly large amount of power. But the brothel that bought her as a child still owns her and can subject her to horrible punishments when she steps too far out of line.
The story itself can be a bit confusing at times. It’s more of a series of vignettes than a cohesive narrative. It starts with Kiyoha as a grown woman lashing out at a maid, and then steps back to the time she was a child before she was sold to the brothel and continues from there. So you get to see where she started and how her personality is fundamentally unchanged, even as she learns how to navigate the floating world and rise to its peak.
As a book, it’s one of the more beautiful manga I’ve seen, all foil-embossed cover and incredible full-color pages, complete with really lovely fuchsia edging. Anno’s usual enormous eyes feel a bit toned down, or maybe less jarringly noticeable in an era when everything was big and over the top. She doesn’t skimp on the elaborate hair constructions or the layers and layers of kimono, and you pretty much never see the same kimono pattern twice. I also love that the gutters between the panels are all inked black. It fits so well with the story and with the overall tone of the art.
And thematically, I love that Anno always manages to put forward women who buck social norms and do whatever it takes to live their own lives. Kiyoha may be a slave in some ways, but she has her own ideas and her own desires, and it’s these that Anno wisely focusses on. And you have no excuse for not reading this one. It’s out in English now (although I have not read that version, I’ve heard it’s just as lovely), and you can even get it signed by Anno herself if you come to Toronto in May. You totally should.