August 13, 2012
Moyoco Anno – Vertical – 2012 – 1 volume
I’ve talked about this series already as a license request, which got announced while I was in the process of writing it up. But it’s definitely worth revisiting as a localized volume, because it’s an amazing story. Anno is also one of my absolute favorite mangaka, and this book is her best work art-wise. I cried a little while reading it in English.
The volume starts with a look at Kiyoha, a courtesan at one of the best houses in Yoshiwara, the walled red-light district of Edo. She’s ranked #3 at her shop, but clearly isn’t enjoying the game as much as the other women. She fights, is rude and picky, beats up the young maids, and wants nothing to do with popularity contests among the courtesans. But when the head courtesan, the Oiran, is murdered by her lover, the shop is left with nobody suitable for the head position save Kiyoha. She doesn’t want it, and the volume goes back to explain why.
She was sold to the shop as a very young girl, and started her career in Yoshiwara as a maid who was constantly trying to run away, and beaten for her trouble. She was maid to the then-Oiran, who doled out her share of punishment, but seemed to admire Kiyoha’s adamant refusal to conform to her situation. The story follows Kiyoha as she fights tooth and nail against a system that basically opens its arms to accept her. Despite her best efforts to ruin her chances, she is one of the most beautiful girls at the shop, and she is destined for one of the top spots, something that the other maids and courtesans envy her for.
It would almost be hard to read if it wasn’t so fascinating. Kiyoha is basically sold into slavery and raised to be a companion for wealthy men. The sexual favors are emphasized here, although the first chapter states that Kiyoha is the only one among the women at her shop who also knows all the fine arts (music, conversation, and probably things like tea ceremony and flower arranging) that are expected of the courtesans. Kiyoha doesn’t even have a consistent name. She has at least two, and possibly a third name, as she advances from maid to apprenticeship to professional. She seems to gain another when she acquires Oiran rank in the first chapter, too. And she hates it all. She would love nothing more than to run away, and a good portion of the second half of the book is about how she falls in love and can’t be with her lover.
And it is sad, in its way, but it’s a more interesting read because Kiyoha never pities herself. She keeps herself sharp, looking for ways out, and looking for flaws among the other courtesans that she can exploit when they inevitably attack her. She constantly defends herself, and is often beaten for her troubles by… well, her owners. But she doesn’t let it get her down, and only uses it as motivation for her hate, fuel in her fire, for when she inevitably escapes, or becomes the best at what she does.
The only problem with the book is that it feels like it ends prematurely. It starts with the chapter where she doesn’t want to be appointed Oiran, then starts the flashback that gradually works its way back up to the present. Except it never gets there. The last chapter suggests she resigns herself to her fate, her one last hope stripped away, whereas the first suggests she isn’t actually resigned. And the story doesn’t connect. I always thought that there should be one more volume, and I was hoping an English translation would fill in whatever I was missing in the Japanese version, but it never did.
But really, as great as the story is, it takes a backseat to the art in this volume. It’s just amazing. Anno draws every detail of all the costumes and hairstyles among the flashy courtesans, and everything is just so lovely. The only problem I had was that it could be difficult to tell the characters apart (they all wear the same hairstyles and elaborate costumes, and admittedly, Anno isn’t the best at drawing distinctive faces), but it became easier as the volume went on. It’s gorgeous, probably one of the prettiest stories I own. And again, I’m so happy it was translated into English.
Moyoco Anno is always a no-brainer for me, and this is probably her best work. It’s definitely worth picking up, and I hope it does well, because I would love to see her other stories in English.