Cinemas are extraordinary spaces. We gather together, many strangers in the dark, to dream collectively. Some of those dreams are beautiful, light and full of hope, while others are dark, soiled and filled with dread.
A Courtesan With Flowered Skin, adapted from an award winning adult novel by Ayako Miyagi, explores both kinds of dreams. A vibrant, elegantly shot Edo-period drama from director Keisuke Toyoshima, A Courtesan With Flowered Skin explores the life of a young courtesan, Asagiri (Yumi Adachi), whose skin bears unusual red, flower-like markings that become more prominent when she is sexually aroused.
The promise of sex features heavily in the promotion of the film, alluding to the history of Japanese erotic cinema, although the graphic and revealing moments are restricted to two scenes in the film, one of consensual and one of non-consensual sex. Both scenes make sense within the story line and yet they both also feel gratuitous, exploitative even.
This might seem like an odd concern to raise, in a story about the life of a prostitute, who is contractually bound to her work like an indentured slave. But, much of what drives A Courtesan With Flowered Skin isn’t really the sex, as much as the sensuality. This is a texturally beautiful film, the costuming is exquisite and the scenery looks groomed to perfection.
The materialism is actually deep with meaning. Asagiri works in an upmarket pleasure house, her fellow courtesans are well dressed, impeccably groomed and not without a measure of social standing in what was a transitional period in the history of the Japanese sex industry.
It is fitting that when Asagiri does encounter a male she can love, Hanjiro (Yasushi Fuchigami), he is actually a trader in linens, with enough of an aesthetic eye to not just notice her beauty, but also the artisanal craft that went into the making of her sandals and her hair pin.
Even the famed flower markings that adorn Asagiri’s body most prominently during love making (or curiously, rape) also carry a double meaning, a troubling marker to both her history and her potential future.
A Courtesan With Flowered Skin is an intriguing film. Yumi Adachi is like a diamond in the lead role, with the many facets of Asagiri’s personality catching the light of the camera in surprising ways. Along with the stunning visual depth of the film and the fascinating cultural context of the courtesans this makes for a fascinating cinematic dream.