I've had this one sitting on the shelf for a while, and never got around to reading it. Not out of lack of interest: rather, I could tell it was going to be so good that I wanted to wait for the right time. The Paul Masson theory of literary consumption, for those old enough to remember it.
Anno Moyoko 安野モヨコ (Moyoco seems to be her preferred romanization: cute): Sakuran さくらん, serialized from 2001 to 2003, published in book form in 2003. There's a movie, too, which I haven't seen (I was waiting to read the manga). It's a little unclear how complete the story is at the end of this volume; she started serializing a second part in 2005, but it petered out. At the moment, Volume 1 is the only volume.
It's a true modern classic, though. Art, story, everything. It's set in the pleasure quarters of Edo, the notorious licensed-prostitution district, and it's kind of a bildungsroman about the courtesan Kiyoha: how she comes to the quarter, how she grows up, how she advances through the ranks.
The subject matter is pretty hackneyed, even if you like this sort of thing - Memoirs of a Geisha, anybody? The brilliance of this manga is in how Anno manages to make it all seem fresh. She writes/draws of the pleasure quarters as if nobody else had ever depicted them in fiction: and I doubt anybody has depicted them quite like this. Through liberally working in contemporary (as in right-now) girls'-comix aesthetics, over-the-top exaggerations of textile designs and hairstyles, and fashion-magazine poses and faces, Anno succeeds in making the quarter and its denizens feel real. She makes the glamor that every contemporary (as in right-then) source speaks of, but that can feel so remote and fairy-tale to us moderns, feel immediate. Shorter: this is an impossibly sexy Yoshiwara.
At the same time Anno pulls no punches in depicting the sexual-slavery realities of the pleasure quarters, forcing readers to confront the seamy underbelly of all that glamor. But she does it in a hard-boiled way that allows her to avoid the Dickensian sadism that destroyed Golden's book: Kiyoha, for all her sufferings, is not a very sympathetic character, and that makes her story ring true.
It's a rush, this comic. The art is overwhelming, and the setting bewildering. It doesn't help - or maybe it does help - that Anno isn't the most skilled narrator. It can be really hard to follow exactly what's happening to whom, and she leaves out a lot of the exposition that you might expect to find in a historical manga, explaining the peculiar lingo and customs of the quarter. She throws you in at the deep end, figuring the best visions are what you see just before you drown. She may be right.