Every once in a while an artist emerges whose work is so far ahead of its time that the audience of the day is unwilling to accept but generations to come will finally recognise for the achievement it represents. So it is for Sharaku – a young man whose abilities and ambitions are ruthlessly manipulated by those around him for their own gain. Brought to the screen by veteran new wave director Masahiro Shinoda, Sharaku (写楽) is an attempt to throw some light on the life of this mysterious historical figure who comes to symbolise, in many ways, the turbulence of his era.
The Edo of 1791 is a world of extreme austerity. All art is suspect and all “pornography” outlawed. Any sign of extravagance is frowned on, including the “frivolous” arts leading to a decline in the world of classic entertainment as kabuki artists struggle to survive. Tombo (Hiroyuki Sanada) was one such kabuki performer but after an onstage accident leaves him with a damaged foot he joins a rag tag group of street performers. Whilst there he begins drawing bringing him to the attention of an art seller, Tsutaya (Frankie Sakai), who has an idea to create prints of famous actors as a way of promoting local theatre shows.
Rechristened with the artist’s name of Sharaku, Tombo’s artwork creates a sensation with its never seen before style which places a new emphasis on realism rather than flattery. Popularity brings its own problems as Sharaku finds himself a virtual prisoner of Tsutaya whose demands are ever expanding, as well as facing the intense opposition of Tsutaya’s former cash cow – renowned artist Utamaro, who is prepared to go to great lengths to ensure his traditional painting style is the one that wins out.
This is a time of extreme conservatism and Sharaku’s work is a risky proposition as it rejects accepted stylisation in favour of undoctored reality. Dynamically posed, his portraits of kabuki actors display no pandering but reflect all of the subject’s less flattering qualities. Striking and unusual, Sharaku’s insistence on capturing internal truth is entirely at odds with the need for compliance with the “truths” handed down by the government. The public aren’t ready for such radically honest art and even champions of a more naturalistic style such as the universally lauded Utamaro also reject it (though largely out of fear and self interest).
Sharaku is, of course, an artist’s name and not a man’s and therefore is easily manipulated. Held a virtual prisoner by Tsutaya, Tombo begins to resent his new life of exploitation by his master who wants him to work in a more commercial fashion yet took him on precisely because of the novel, aggressive nature of his untrained drawing. Sharaku’s commitment to artistry over conformity is at odds with the era which is entirely founded on everyone obeying the accepted order of things. The times are changing, but not fast enough for Sharaku.
Shinoda paints an exciting vision of Edo era Tokyo filled with colour and energy despite the supposed austerity of the times. He brings kabuki out into the streets with beautifully balletic street brawls and strange acrobatic feats that appear extremely incongruous in the off stage world. However, Sharaku attempts to juggle a number of themes and subplots which never manage to coalesce into something whole. The side story of a depressed geisha and her star crossed love for Tombo even whilst she finds herself the favourite misteress of Utamaro is the most interesting but is never satisfactorily resolved.
After beginning with some oddly old fashioned on screen graphics, Shinoda opts for a stately directing style though makes frequent use of freeze frames and dissolves. The film takes on an appropriately etherial quality with sudden interruptions of theatre and the rhythms of classical drama yet even the free floating dream-like atmosphere can’t quite makeup for its central lack of coherence. Tombo himself, as played by Hiroyuki Sanada, is too much of a cypher to lead the picture yet the attempt to branch out into an ensemble drama doesn’t take hold either. A late, flawed effort from an old master, Sharaku has a lot to say about the nature of art, about artists, about reception and legacy, and also about its era but much of the message is lost in the faded paper on which it is painted.