Comic books have long been considered a male-dominated industry, though they in fact have a rich and diverse history of female writers and artists. Our own Kayleigh Hearn will examine the works of female comic creators in superhero comics, indie favorites, manga, and any undiscovered gems or oddities that come her way, in her monthly column Ink Ladies.
There is a single panel in Moyoco Anno’s 2003 manga Sakuran that I keep flipping back to whenever I look at the book. It’s not a particularly dramatic or important moment, but the image sticks with me as an example of Anno’s power as an artist. The panel features Shohi, the courtesan “elder sister” of the protagonist Kiyoha, after a long, unpleasant night with a lecherous customer. Her head is slightly tilted, her eyes are exhausted black pools, and a strand of her long hair sticks to her dry lips. It’s not meant to be a glamorous scene by any means, but it impresses me, because not many artists would think of that tiny detail, the hair stuck to her lips. Sakuran is the story of Kiyoha, an oiran (high-ranking courtesan) in Edo period Japan. Orphaned as a child, she is sold to a brothel to be a maid for courtesans. As she grows into a remarkable beauty, Kiyoha begins training to be an oiran herself, despite her contempt for the brothel and her many escape attempts. Though her proud, willful nature at first seems like a liability, Kiyoha’s ferocious force of will is actually what enables her to ascend to the top ranks in the competitive world of the courtesans. The title of Sakuran is a pun, meaning “derangement” and also being an elision of the words for “cherry blossoms” and “courtesan,” and it’s a title that perfectly describes Kiyoha’s double nature. She’s beautiful but wild. As is the case with her other available-in-English works like Happy Mania and In Clothes Called Fat, Anno creates a heroine who is complex and multilayered without being necessarily likeable. Kiyoha is not a hooker with a heart of gold. As a child, Kiyoha is (justifiably) angry and spiteful, with all the manners of a wild fox cub, and as an adult she’s not much better. The very first scenes of the manga feature Kiyoha picking on a young maid and then attacking a fellow courtesan, and even when we learn about her troubled history, the story never pulls back to assure the reader that she’s really cute or gentle, deep down. Still, it’s hard not to root for a protagonist who, even after being tied to a tree as punishment for an outburst, has enough fire in her belly to snarl, “Fuck off and die, you old bastard” at the man who put her there. There’s a raw, refreshing honesty in Kiyoha’s characterization, and if she’s not meant to be loved, then she’s at least meant to be understood. Despite the facade of beauty and elegance that surrounds her, Kiyoha lives in an environment where women’s bodies are commodities that can be bought and sold. The men who uphold this system of sexual servitude are generally portrayed as pimps, lechs, and ogres, and while sex is frequently explicit, it’s frankly un-erotic. (The most sensual scene in the book, in which Kiyoha’s first “true” lover brings her to orgasm through her clothing, has no nudity at all.) Kiyoha is renamed three times in her life, each name signifying a new change in status—and as if to say, “your body isn’t your own, and neither is your name.” So what does a woman like Kiyoha have left? Sadly, there is little comfort to be found in relationships with women in the pleasure quarters, as the competitive nature of their work frequently puts them in each other’s crosshairs. “I felt that the lives of women had as prostitutes during the Edo period and my life as a manga artist had certain parallels,” Anno said in an interview with MTV Geek News, referring to the fierce competition among artists. (And damn, is that scary to think about.) Kiyoha’s one true friend is O-Some, a fellow courtesan-in-training. The scene in which the two girls pinky-swear that they will only cry when they are together is one of the most powerful and poignant moments in the manga. But, like a childhood best friend in a Charlotte Bronte novel, O-Some unexpectedly passes away. Many possible causes are given—suicide, the plague, abuse—but Kiyoha never knows the truth. O-Some’s death underlines the fact that no matter how skillfully trained or highly sought-after they are, women in Kiyoha’s position are disposable. Kiyoha’s heart has hardened, but it doesn’t mean it can’t break. The dream of love, or at least the illusion of it, is a theme throughout Sakuran. Courtesans must master the art of performance, whether it’s in the form of an elaborate dochu procession or faking sexual pleasure for a client. Though marriage isn’t an impossibility, the love affairs of courtesans in Yoshiwara are frequently marked by tragedy. One oiran plans to kill her lover, and then herself, but instead her lover kills her and flees. The violence is brief, but the image of the woman’s crumpled doll body, the wall blackened by her blood, reminded me of the doomed prostitutes in From Hell, though Anno’s precise, elegant artwork is very different than Eddie Campbell’s. Another courtesan asks Kiyoha to cut off her finger so that she may send it to her lover as a sign of devotion, an act Kiyoha brutally scoffs. (“It’s so out of style,” another courtesan remarks.) Such dramatic displays of emotion are also performance, painful and ultimately empty. In spite of herself, Kiyoha falls in love with a sad-eyed florist named Sojiro, who inspires one last escape. First love can make anyone feel painfully vulnerable, but for Kiyoha it’s nearly fatal. This brush with romance makes an unsentimental character surprisingly poetic. Just believing in Sojiro’s devotion is a tremendous risk: “Like a lily blooming in pitch darkness, I’ll believe that one thing to be true.” Sakuran is simply a beautiful book to read, and Vertical Inc. deserves accolades for their presentation of the English edition. The colored pages are boldly vivid, and allow the reader to appreciate Anno’s attention to detail. Fashion is frequently overlooked in comic art, but Anno is clearly fascinated by the Edo period clothing. Kiyoha and the other women in Yoshiwara are elaborately dressed in kimonos that feature a variety of geometric and flowering patterns, and they highlight Anno’s already striking and stylized figures. Every line of Anno’s pen feels careful and deliberate, making each fluttering eyelash or pouting lip (or yes, loose lock of hair) feel heavy with meaning. Moyoco Anno’s Sakuran is a sad but wildly beautiful manga about a difficult woman in an impossible situation. “To love is hell. To be loved is hell,” Kiyoha grimly thinks. “But without love, you can’t live.”
Come back next month for a another installment of Ink Ladies!