The familiar tale of a prostitute who breaks her golden rule and falls in love is given polished treatment in the Japanese costume drama “A Courtesan With Flowered Skin.” A traditionally filmed adaptation of Ayako Miyagi’s 2006 novel, “Hanayoi dochu,” the pic boasts a compelling central perf by Yumi Adachi and is notable for remaining fully clothed apart from one harrowing sex scene and another of great beauty. A tale of desire and freedom that’s erotically charged but certainly not titillating, “Courtesan” is worth the attention of fest programmers and specialized smallscreen outlets. It opened locally on Nov. 8.
The setting is the 1860s, during the dying days of Japan’s insular Edo period. Introducing herself in voiceover narration as “a purebred prostitute of the Yoshiwara gutters,” Asagiri (Adachi) belongs to the oiran, a high-class category of entertainer and pleasure giver whose popularity declined with the rise of more affordable geishas in the 19th century. A fragile beauty who looks much younger than her thirtyish years, Asagiri has been raised in brothels since the death of her mother (Eriko Nakamura), an abusive prostitute who branded the girl with a burning opium pipe, leaving her with flower-like markings that become more visible when she is emotionally aroused.
The meticulously shot and scripted introductory sequences give viewers a detailed look at the day-to-day life of Asagiri, which involves elaborate costume, makeup and hairdressing preparations for evenings spent perched in a display window to attract passing males. A pragmatist who’s lived by the rule of never looking for love with clients or seeking a rich man to buy out her contract, Asagiri will soon finish her term of indentured service at the Yoshiwara district brothel run by chirpy Mr. Yamadaya and hard-nosed Madam Okatsu (Tomochika). The intriguing aspect here is that Asagiri is at once looking forward to freedom and scared of it. As she says, “I’ve come from nowhere, and I’m also going nowhere.”
The game-changer is a chance meeting on the street in daytime with Hanjiro (Yasushi Fuchikami), a handsome artisan with great knowledge of textiles and dyes used for kimonos. Following a lovely meet-cute in which Hanjiro retrieves a wooden sandal Asagiri has lost in a busy marketplace, the couple’s chaste relationship deepens before their real worlds collide. Hoping to secure a valuable work contract, Hanjiro attends the house of Yoshidaya (Kanji Tsuda), an important client who has invited Asagiri and several other oiran to supply the evening’s entertainment. In a lengthy and confrontational scene that encapsulates the power dynamics and social realities of the day, Hanjiro remains silent while the wealthy senior man rapes Asagiri in front of him.
As expected, Asagiri and Hanjiro’s romance nosedives before confessions and explanations are made, passions are rekindled in a beautifully filmed sequence, and hitherto unknown connections between the couple are revealed. The most crucial of these revolves around the seen-in-flashback character of Kirisato (Saki Takaoka), a courtesan who raised Asagiri and died in ignominious circumstances after her so-called freedom was bought by the heartless Yoshidaya.
The screenplay by Ishin Kamo neatly balances the ultimately tragic central drama with a secondary narrative thread involving Asagiri’s friend Yatsu (Ena Koshino). Introduced as a naive dreamer who’s crushed when rich client Oshimaya (Kenji Matsuda) fails to buy her freedom as anticipated, Yatsu is seen gradually adopting the hard-line attitude espoused by Asagiri, to the point where she becomes a highly skilled manipulator of Oshimaya’s emotions and finances.
With the invaluable assistance of graceful camerawork, strong performances and impeccable production and costume design, helmer Keisuke Toyoshima invokes the atmosphere of classical erotic arthouse dramas such as “In the Realm of the Senses.” Though it doesn’t attain the intense peaks of such a masterpiece, and marred slightly by a few lines of dialogue that sound much more 21st century than 19th, “Courtesan” earns an honorable place in this wing of Japanese cinema. All other technical credits are first-rate.