Inspired by Nagisa Oshima’s controversial masterpiece, in the realm of the senses, Sada is a visually stunning erotic thriller, based on the true story of Sada Abe, a Japanese Geisha, who murdered and castrated her lover in 1936.
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi (Beijing Watermelon, The Drifting Classroom) explores Sada’s complicated past: her at age 14, her descent into prostitution, and the crime of passion that ultimately turned her into an overnight media celebrity.
Winner of the International Critics Prize at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival, Sada stars Hitomi Kuroki (Paradise Lost) in this tale of love taken to the ultimate extreme.
eyelights: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s stylistic choices. its tale.
eyesores: its lack of heat.
“Use this to cut out my heart.”
‘Sada: Gesaku · Abe Sada no shôgai’ is a 1998 motion picture by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, director of cult classic ‘Hausu‘. It recounts the life of Sada Abe, the notorious sex worker who became a japanese pop culture icon in the middle of the 20th century. Unlike its predecessor, ‘Ai no korîda‘, however, its focus isn’t merely on Sada’s relationship with her lover.
And yet, it’s not so much of a biopic as it is an interpretation of Sada Abe’s life, an exploration of what lead to the murder of Ishida – from her teen years all the way to her interrogation and the trial itself. Almost everything that takes place before and after are only discussed in a very brief fashion (although, in all fairness, her history is a bit sketchy).
Interestingly, all of the other characters’ names have been changed for this film (For instance, Ishida is called Tetzuko here). While the reasons are unclear, this is completely in line with the picture’s stated modus operandi of blurring the lines between fact and fiction: At the onset we are told that Sada wants to tell her story herself, so that “lies become truth”.
The whole picture is a stylistic blur of theatre and cinema, b&w and colour, drama and comedy; it’s relatively difficult to distinguish what is real from what isn’t. And, although that’s a welcome challenge for the audience, it’s also a total treat, a delightful feast for the senses, as Ôbayashi goes through many different modes just to indulge his creative impulses.
A perfect example of this is the scene in which Sada, at age 14, is raped. A traumatic and life-defining moment, it’s played out in a slightly goofy fashion, defusing most of the tension and horror from it. And then, to create contrast, she and her aggressor are visited by Okada, who just appears out of nowhere, layered in glowing hearts, and begins to nurse her wounds.
Another equally memorable moment is when she decides to become a prostitute: The camera looks down at her, in colour, sighing heavily and moaning, while a quick monochromatic montage of the men she’s having sex with flashes by – all seen from her perspective. It’s the perfect way of establishing how they all conflated into one, how intangible they were in her reality.
Even the violence is treated in a way that creates distance between the acts and the audience: For instance, when Sada gets into a fight with Yoshi, Tatsuzo’s spouse, it’s done in a cartoonish, stylistic manner that provokes chuckles. And when Sada puts the finishing touches on her relationship with Tatsuzo, it is rendered from behind a glass pane awash in red paint.
Evidently, Sada Abe’s life was no bed of roses, but Ôbayashi’s creative idiosyncracies make the viewing not just palatable but actually entertaining: His approach stimulates the audience in ways that the film wouldn’t have had it been a dry, literal production of the script. While one could argue that his mild aloofness takes away from the tragedy, I disagree.
After all, we are privy to Sada’s thoughts through her narration, which give us a glimpse into her personality and state of being throughout that period; we understand what leads her to scandal, even if the act itself is frustratingly unmotivated here. What’s great is that her accounts are supported by “historical facts” via the voice-over of her interrogator.
Still, for all its artistic merits and wonderful storytelling, the picture lacks heat. Whereas ‘Ai no korîda’ is aflame with erotic fire, ‘Sada: Gesaku · Abe Sada no shôgai’ is nearly neutered – though there are a number of sexy bits (which were mostly shot from the shoulders up or behind screens). Mind you, one might say that this film had different intentions.
Ultimately, though, ‘Sada: Gesaku · Abe Sada no shôgai’ is satisfying: its unique mix of art house, biopic and humour paint a sympathetic portrait of one of Japan’s most surprising icons. It’s pretty much a traditional historical drama transmogriphied into a quirky exercise in style. That alone is worth the 130 minutes – if the story of Sada Abe doesn’t already compel sufficiently.
Date of viewing: July 18, 2016