She 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.
Abe’s 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.
Unfortunately, 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.
Although 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 atmosphere.
Nevertheless, 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.
In 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.