'A Courtesan with Flowered Skin': Tokyo Review

Courtesy of The World Film Festival Montreal
Love and sexual power games in an exotic pleasure house

Yumi Adachi stars in Keisuke Toyoshima’s first feature as a young Edo prostitute in 1860s Japan

There’s no denying the prurient appeal of a tale about exotic prostitutes that plays with the blurred line between art and sex. Though there is plenty here to stimulate male fantasies, A Courtesan with Flowered Skin (Hanayoi Dochu) falls more on the artistic side of the equation, and one shockingly graphic sex scene is an essential key to the entire story. Still it should benefit art house distributors with substantial crossover appeal, after bowing at fests like Montreal, Tokyo and Hawaii. Based on Ayako Miyagi’s award-winning novel set during the Edo period in 1860s Japan, this melancholy costumer about a high-class prostitute called an oiran achieves a very nice period look without always being able to hit the right notes in the acting and direction, which can feel disturbingly contemporary.

Director Keisuke Toyoshima’s first feature finds the story’s emotional center in the performance of young actress Yumi Adachi as the juvenile queen of a fancy Edo bordello. As the film well illustrates, the oiran were indentured high-class prostitutes living in brothels within special walled cities. Like the geisha, they entertained clients with their graceful conversation and musical skills. They wore the same white face makeup and elaborate hairstyles, but wore their obi in a distinctive knot in the front, like a giant butterfly perched on their breasts.  

Asagiri (Adachi) is a sad-eyed, strong-willed girl bound to a house of the rising sun in the so-called pleasure district of Yoshiwara. Every night, from inside a painted bamboo cage, the girls preen in full regalia for men passing on the street.

Asagiri’s mother was a “wretched gutter whore” who tortured her daughter with a hot opium pipe, creating small burns in the shape of flowers all over her body. When she died, Asagiri was taken in by the courtesan Kirisato (Saki Takaoka), famous for being a mistress of “the courtesan parade”. Shown only briefly in the film but to great visual effect, this involved walking in an elaborate mincing gait while balancing on astonishing 8-inch platform shoes.  

As the story opens, Kirisato has recently died, after being “freed” from the brothel by the rich businessman Yoshidaya (Kanji Tsuda). Asagiri, too, is looking forward to completing her indentured service and leaving, when she meets a young handsome artisan on the street, Hanjiro (Yasushi Fuchikami). Their tender feelings for each other soon turn to disillusionment, however. In a repellent but powerful scene, she takes a group of girls to the house of Kirisato’s lascivious businessman-protector for a night of “entertainment” and is brutally raped in front of Hanjiro. Their anguished exchange of glances, each powerless to stop the cruel humiliation, speaks worlds about the hierarchy of Japanese society and the status of women. The physicality of the scene is hardly erotic but painful to watch, as Yoshidaya exposes her and comments on how the delicate “flowers” that cover her skin deepen in color when she flushes.

In a parallel story, Asagiri’s friend Yatsu (Ena Koshino) is also disappointed in love, but masters the art of cold-hearted manipulation. Asagiri and Hangiro’s true love is, instead, indicated by a very long and passionate love-making scene and, of course, noble self-sacrifice.   

The film’s recreation of the place and time, expecially  period costumes with their strange patterns and colors is one of its more notable achievements, and casts an aura of historical authenticity over the well-worn love story. Undercutting the period feeling is the modern acting and direction that sometimes suggests contemporary teenagers in love, and lines like, “Spread your legs, earn your keep.”

Production companies: Toei Tokyo Movie Studios
Yumi Adachi, Yasushi Fuchikami, Ena Koshino, Tomochika, Saki Takaoka, Kanji Tsuda
Keisuke Toyoshima
Ishin Kamo based on the novel by Ayako Miyagi
Producers: Gen Sato, Yoshikazu Yago
Executive producer: Kazuo Kato
Director of photography: Osamu Fujiishi
Music: Shuhei Kamimura
Sales Agent: Nikkatsu

No rating, 102 minutes