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Home Vision Entertainment // Unrated // August 10, 2004
List Price: $19.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted September 5, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Sada (1998) tells the tale of Sada Abe, a woman who rose to infamy when on May 16th, 1936, she strangled her lover and cut off his penis. She was found wandering the streets three days later, the severed member still with her. This case of a former prostitute and grifter whose three month liaison with a hotel owner resulted in murder, became the stuff of tabloidish legend for the Japanese, who looked upon her story as the ultimate crime of passion.

If the story seems familiar to you cinephiles, it should. The tale was previously told in Nagashi Oshima's landmark, sexually explicit, arthouse masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses, and in the lesser known and less explicit A Woman Called Sada Abe. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi, whose House is still on my want list of films I've never seen, delves into more background on the character than those previous films (and with strictly PG-13 sexual content).

Sada begins with Sada Abe's (Hitomi Kuroki) rape while still a teenager and her crush on the medical student, Okada, who helped her following the crime. This relationship, in the film, is looked upon as her ideal, and the rest of her life hinges on this unrequited love because as quickly as they befriended each other, Okada had to leave her. Therefore, the film states, she developed a complex about being left alone, symbolized by her penchant for donuts, her comfort food of choice because Okada gave them to her. In the years that follow, an embittered Sada matures and becomes a prostitute. Eventually, as a further way to make ends meet, she is hired as kitchen help in Tatsuzo Kikumoto's (Tsurutaro Kataoka) hotel, and the two go from flirtation to their ultimately tragic affair.

As I watched Sada, I wasn't instantly won over by the film, but I was willing to give it a chance because I was interested in seeing how it would tell her story. The film continued on and I suddenly began to feel uncomfortable and, at first, was unable to put my finger on why. I soon realized the film was really unsettling me and the reason was that its tone is just highly inappropriate considering the material. Now, when I review movies, I only use myself as the dowsers wand, but, in the case of Sada, comments made in the DVD director's statement and liner notes may help explain why the film gave me a sour reaction, so forgive me as I'm about to make a direct contrary opinion to another person, including the film's director.

Sada's story is one of an affair so twisted and a mind so fragile, a woman murders her lover and mutilates the body. Now, the exaggerated style of Sada is, quite frankly, kind of sick, because it is seriously weird to tell this kind of story in a light, childish, and sometimes comical manner. The liner notes by Richard Kadrey state that the film depicts "in painful detail, Sada Abe's rape and humiliation as a young woman." I didn't find this to be the case at all; the scene is not particularly harsh and the tone (both the way it is filmed and acted) certainly doesn't come across like it was meant to be deeply or even slightly disturbing. If you want to see this kind of difficult subject matter tackled well, try out Lilya 4-Ever, which really makes you empathize for a poor young girls abuse and humiliation. Now, obviously Kadrey saw something different, something that affected him- maybe you will too?- but for the life of me I cannot imagine why anyone would view the scene as harsh. Your average after school special is more biting.

In the director's statement, Nobuhiko Obayashi he says he was trying to capture some sense of the spirit of the times in pre-war WW2 Japan, a time when such an act could be lauded as one of love. In the final moments, some scenes point this public acceptance but still fails to justify the comedic styling in the first two thirds of the film. The film has flat out slapstick scenes, and I doubt they are in any way reflective of how Sada's life was perceived. Yes, she was applauded, but at the same time I doubt anyone looked at her life like it was cartoonish and straight out of Pee Wee's Playhouse, which is exactly what Obayashi does. The choice of this often juvenile approach seems downright insensitive. When the two lovers talk about killing each other, it is done in a playful way. She asks him, "You won't go away? You won't leave me will you?", and she says it like a six year old without any emotional longing in the words, so that makes the outcome of their affair all the more puzzling.

Aesthetically, Obayashi pulls out too many tricks, from awkward jump cuts, to reverse angles, to color changes, that all seem excessive. The surreal bravado might make for an interesting looking film but it also completely trivializes the story. This isn't a bio picture like Ed Wood, which was justifiably oddball because it was more about the idea of the man more than the man himself. Sada attempts to push a lot of background bio information about her that In the Realm of the Senses and A Woman Called Sada Abe didn't have, yet both of those films seem far more emotionally true to her story than this film. Obayashi also says "Movies are products of fictition and imagination". True, In the Realm of the Senses and A Woman Called Sada Abe are just as liberally fictitious- hell, probably more- than Sada , but at least they approached the story with a maturer sensibility that was befitting to the material.

This all reminds me of another case of another mentally unstable figure who committed despicable acts only to be morbidly embraced by the Japanese. While an art student in France, Issei Sagawa shot and killed a fellow classmate he had become obsessed with and even proceeded to carve her up and eat some of her flesh. Sagawa was deported back to Japan and, due to a technicality within the system, he was eventually released- that's right, out into the public, in the open air, a deviant, murderous cannibal in their midst. Even stranger, the guy became a televison sensation, wrote a bestseller, starred in some soft core flicks, and managed to become minor celebrity to this day. And, it just wasnt because he did some sick act so there was shock appeal; just like Sada Abe, his crime is often told as if it was some ultimate act of obsession and desire... It's a weird world out there folks.

The DVD: Home Vision Entertainment

Picture: Standard 1.33:1. Home Vision is usually on top of things with their transfers, so this full-screen transfer is surprising. For what it is, the image looks fantastic. The abundant use of colors is very striking. The black and white scenes are aided by the transfers deep contrast. All around it is sharp, clean, and crisp. But, this just makes it more disappointing that the film isn't in the proper aspect ratio.

Sound: Monaural Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Sound quality is good. Obviously since it is mono there isn't a lot in terms of dynamics, but the basic dialogue, music, and fx are crisp and clear.

Extras: Liner Notes and Director's Statement— Selected Filmographies for director Nouhiko Obayashi and actress Hitomi Kuroki— Original Theatrical trailer plus Zatoichi Collection trailer.

Conclusion: Well, interesting to look at in a pure visual sense, but I'm turned off by the films choice of tone. As much as I may debase the film, it is entertaining and worth a viewing, especially if you are interested in the story and the other two films that told it, or should I say, told it much better.

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