Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The famous Sada Abe scandal of 1936 has been revisited in Japanese film several times, most
notoriously in Oshima's In The Realm of the Senses. This recent version embellishes the
raw facts of the story with constantly changing visual styles - color and B&W, stylized sets,
silent-movie accelerated motion and even pixellation. Steering clear of anything typically softcore
but consisting almost exclusively of sexual situations, the story of this fallen temptress plays
like a Pillow-Book version of Amelie.
Teenager Sada Abe (Hitomi Kuroki) is raped by a cruel college student, and
treated kindly by young medic Masaru Okada (Kippei Shiina), who announces that he
must disappear to a faraway island and never be seen again. Sada becomes a geisha and then a
prostitute of great skill, ignoring the hundreds of men who visit her to remember her champion
Okada and the little donuts he brought her. She finally becomes the kept woman of a politician
who arranges for her to learn the restaurant business. But Sada
is smitten by the restaurant owner's husband Tatsuzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka) and falls into a
delirious, destructive affair.
Sada retells the famous (in Japan) story of the woman who strangled her lover and then
severed his penis to carry with her as a keepsake. Director Nobihuko Obayashi doesn't dramatize
the tale as much as make it into a kaleidoscope of visual styles and narrative gimmicks, an
approach that suits the subject well. Beautiful Hitomi Kuroki gives Sada a realistic emotional center,
but she's surrounded by a circus of effects that point up the fact that what was once a crime story
is now an entrenched myth.
Narration zips through Sada's life, highlighting the little known about her and apologizing for missing
chapters in her story. Starting out with Sada as a child in 1913, much of the early part of the film
between B&W and color with startling effect. After her rape, the B&W image jumps into oversaturated
hues - except for Sada's blood, which remains black. Unrealistic street scenes are played like
Keystone Kops comedies, complete with jerky motion and exaggerated acting. An afternoon in Sada's
parlor of prostitution is told in the style of a bedroom farce, with Sada's own incestuous brother
hiding in the closet and peeking through the paper screen door. The eccentric brother narrates at
several junctures, speaking directly to the audience in a friendly, confidential tone.
The uninterrupted artifice allows a film concerned mostly with sordid sex to function at a remove from
pornographic literalism. Sada makes it with practically everyone, but there is no nudity. Oddball
visuals play up the idea that all the sex bores her. Her street-crook lover takes her on the floor
in a pixellated (animated with live actors) scene that's both funny and bizarre. Her numberless
brothel customers are represented by a flickering succession of dozens of men straining
above her, each on screen for only five frames or so. Sada perceives them all as a blur while feigning
erotic excitement. It's humorous in an ironic way we don't see in many Japanese movies.
As the victim of a rape, it's Sada's life that is ruined. When she learns that her first love has to
leave forever due to the stigma of leprosy, Sada happily proposes that they commit double suicide.
Her parents continue to love her even after she has become a social disgrace. The
neighbors react negatively to her western fashions, and the loyalty of an older patron can't heal
her invisible wounds. When she finds an illicit lover with whom she actually enjoys sex, Sada commits
the famous murder-mutilation. For her makes perfect sense. By creating a universe so completely out
of kilter, director Obayashi prepares us for just about anything.
The movie makes no moral excuses, nor does it condemn. With its fast pace and creative, playful style
choices, Sada is highly engaging. The art direction succeeds with an odd pictorial sense. The
film's real impact has to be seen; there's no describing many of its expressionistic visuals. My
favorite moment shows Sada happily playing a wholly anachronistic song through the 1923 Tokyo
earthquake. It's an atypical Japanese variant of black humor.
Home Vision's DVD of Sada is a beauty. It's a full-frame transfer of a film that looks to have
been shot in at 1:37 ratio. The colors are eye-popping and the picture sharp and clean. The
unusual music track is also perfectly recorded.
A folding insert offers liner notes by Richard Kadrey. Previously a subject for porn-chic art filmmaking,
the legend of Sada Abe benefits here from a lively creative interpretation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: trailer, director and star bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 14, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson