was sort of like the 1930s Japanese Fanny Hill and Lorena Bobbitt all rolled
into one. To say Sada Abe’s murder conviction became notorious would be an
understatement, given the nature of her surgical cuts. She inspired several
motion pictures, including Nagisa Oshima’s nearly equally notorious In the Realm of the Senses, featuring
unsimulated sex scenes. That might sound like a tough act to follow, but
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s distinctive aesthetics and deep empathy for Abe led to a
radically different cinematic take. Of course, there is still plenty of sex in
Obayashi’s Sada (trailer here), which screens
during the Japan Society’s Obayashi retrospective.
initial introduction to sex is not pleasant. A privileged student lures her to
an inn, where he “ravages” her, to use a more delicate, bodice-ripper turn.
However, some good comes with the bad when the innkeeper’s nephew Masaru Okada
comes to her aid. She immediately falls for the medical student, but he has
been consigned to a life of sequestration after contracting leprosy. Abe will
never see him again, but she will always chastely love him.
since Abe has been corrupted by the student, she resigns herself to working
first as a geisha and then as a prostitute, the latter being less hypocritical.
Still, she does not consider this a tragic fate since she genuinely enjoys the
work. Nevertheless, she nearly reinvents herself in respectable fashion, thanks
to the politically connected Sanosuke Tachibana. Intending to set her up in a
cozy restaurant of her own, Tachibana arranges an apprenticeship with the very
married Tatsuzo Kikumoto. Their subsequent affair will end badly for both
(especially Kikumoto), but at least the sex is great while it lasts.
technically a period piece, Obayashi is not overly concerned with recreating vintage
1930s details. Instead, he is more concerned with enhancing and exaggerating
the Abe legend through wild flights of stylization. The film starts with a
fourth wall breaking Shakespearean prologue from Takiguchi, Abe’s
brother-in-law and sometimes pimp cautioning the audience to expect scandal,
while knowing full well that is what we came for. Obayashi frequently switches
from black-and-white to color and playfully adjusting his film speeds. Takiguchi
also pops up here and there to give more on-camera commentary and to engage in
some old school physical comedy, thereby re-establishing the carnivalesque
Sada is often quite serious and
unremittingly frank when it comes to sex. In all likelihood, Sada just wouldn’t have worked without
Hitomi Kuroki’s unclassifiable lead performance. As Abe, she manages to be
naively innocent and ferociously seductive, simultaneously. She is in nearly
every scene and she commands each and every one of them. However, Kyusaku
Shimada is also bizarrely charismatic, in a rather sleazy way, as Takiguchi,
the pimp and master of ceremonies. He even scratches out some unexpectedly
touching moments during the long denouement.
many ways, Sada feels like a
precursor to Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko, except it is less acutely tragic. Both are sweeping tales of
corrupting sex and a yearning for redemptive love. Yet, one of the cool things
about Obayashi’s take is Abe’s refusal to be a victim, despite being victimized
(and arguably psychologically scarred) by men. There are plenty of reasons why
it might put off conventional viewers, but the adventurous will find it
fascinating and maybe even cathartic. Recommended for fans of intense auteurs
like Oshima, Nakashima and of course Obayashi, Sada screens tomorrow (11/22) as part of the Obayashi retrospective
at the Japan Society in New York.
Labels: Japan Society, Japanese Cinema, Nobuhiko Obayashi, Sada Abe