It’s 1791 in Tokyo (then known as Edo). A new government has come down hard on the arts, banning erotic works and any outward signs of wealth or finery. Tsutaya (Frankie Sakai), a publisher, is virtually ruined because he had filled out a clearance form incorrectly. His stripped-down business is dealt a further blow when the acclaimed artist Utamaro (Shiro Sana) — the subject of several earlier films — leaves him for a rival house.
Tsutaya conceives of a series of woodblock portraits to highlight the Kabuki theater. But no known artists can render his dynamic new concept. One failed candidate stumbles onto Tombo’s sketches and, after scouring the city, Tsutaya finds him and redubs him Sharaku –“the insolent one.”
Pic’s attempt to juggle a number of narrative and thematic threads unravels inelegantly. The repressive times are meant to contrast sharply with the explosion of visual talent. There’s also a keen appetite for revenge as the publisher battles the authorities, the artist creates acidic pictorials of the world that cast him out, and the established Utamaro is unhinged by the upstart sensation.
Actor Sanada proves to be singularly uncharismatic and unsympathetic in the lead.
The pitfalls of conveying the artistic process have dogged filmmakers since the dawn of cinema. Shinoda is also undone by the challenge, although his re-creation of 18th-century Edo is arresting. One can taste and smell the community of players that is the focus of the story without tapping into how its subject absorbed the flavors and channeled them into his work. Too remote culturally or historically, “Sharaku” is fated to wander the festival circuit and related specialized screening berths.