Synopsis: When photographer Ishida first sees Sada, the wife of a new acquaintance, his photo shoot with Sada turns quickly into a steamy affair of mind-blowing proportions.
eyelights: Aya Sugimoto. the surrealistic aspect of the picture. the sexy bits.
eyesores: the DVD’s lack of subtitles.
Have you ever watched a foreign film without the subtitles? I just did. Why in the world would I do that, you may wonder. Well, the picture, Rokuro Mochizuki’s 2008 erotic fantasy, ‘Johnen: Sada no ai’, has not been released anywhere else but in Japan. And the Japanese DVD that a friend of mine gave me doesn’t have subtitles. Sadly, it’s the only version available.
Trust me, I checked.
Now, I didn’t just watch the picture because it was a gift (although that’s incentive enough): I watched it because it pertains to Sada Abe, the Japanese icon who is the main character in ‘Ai no korîda‘, one of my all-time favourite films. And anything related to Sada Abe is a curiosity to me – case-in-point, ‘Sada: Gesaku · Abe Sada no shôgai‘ and ‘Jitsuroku Abe Sada‘
There’s very little information about this picture. It’s not a biopic, but it overlaps both the pre-WWII era (when Sada Abe earned her notoriety) and the present day at once. And it appears to be a mixture of fantasy and fiction, telling the story of a photographer who, looking quite like Ishida, Sada’s former lover, is hired to take pictures of Sada’s reincarnated form.
Naturally, a love affair develops.
The rest of the picture is utterly cryptic. The photographer, who is also named Ishida, is called on by Omiya, an older man with long white hair, who consistently dons a black cape, wears black sunglasses, a dangling earring and carries a cane. He is omnipresent throughout the film but his role is unclear. Is he Sada’s spiritual guardian? A benefactor? Her spouse?
I couldn’t tell.
Omiya is accompanied by a crazed servant who first appeared to Ishida in a traditional japanese costume during one of his shoots, laughing maniacally and running away from him. She is constantly assisting Omiya in the proceedings, all wild-eyed under her over-arched painted eyebrows, wearing a traditional French maid’s outfit. Is she a servant? A spirit? A demon?
I have no clue.
Ishida is accompanied by an assistant, who appears to be the same woman he was initially photographing on the beach, taking all sorts of morbid shots that gave the impression that he had murdered her. She mostly floats about in the background, a secondary character, but she eventually seduces Ishida in what looked like a shared delirium. Or perhaps a historical re-enactment.
Still no clue.
Other characters appears: There’s an older geisha and her two belligerent companions, who come out of nowhere to threaten Omiya. This leads to a fight between the geisha and Sada, as well as to a lengthy multi-part trial, presumably for Sada’s crime. I got the impression that the geisha was actually intended to be the original Ishida’s widow, showing up asking for justice.
Look, I’m sure it’s all perfectly sound – it’s just hard to make sense of it without the subtitles or any basic understanding of Japanese. All I can say for sure is that it looks like a fairly entertaining picture – if not for its surrealistic quality, then at least for its visual quality (Mochizuki certainly made the most out of a limited budget).
And if not that, then the sexy bits.
Because, if ‘Johnen: Sada no ai’ is anything, it’s sexy. It’s not at all explicit in the same way that ‘Ai no korîda’ was, but it’s certainly much more erotic than ‘Sada: Gesaku · Abe Sada no shôgai’: Aya Sugimoto (who was also the lead in ‘Hana to hebi (2004)‘) is shown in various stages of undress from start to finish as Sada and Ishida flirt and seduce each other.
The most startling thing for me was that Sugimoto agreed to simulate felatio on screen, taking out a glowing jelly dildo from co-star Kazuya Nakayama’s pants and leaving nothing to the imagination. Now, I know that Japan has very different censorship rules than we do, so the fact that it was a dildo didn’t surprise me. It’s was just that Sugimoto would dare to be so explicit.
Having said this, it was pretty hot.
Another jaw-dropping scene is when Ishida’s assistant goes to the beach and finds her boss tongue deep into Sada. In another moment that made me wonder just how intimate actors can get, Nakayama couldn’t possibly have gotten closer than he was to Sugimoto as his tongue busied itself lapping at her @$$. I’m certainly not complaining, I’m just stunned, is all.
Much of ‘Johnen: Sada no ai’ was fairly sexy, even when it was more subtle, like when present-day Ishida is first introduced to present-day Sada: Slinking into the dining area, dressed in black lace, she pauses just long enough for the maid to peel her underwear off. Then she sits down casually, as though this were a common practice. It was deliberately provocative.
Another memorable moment is when Sada is in a clinic of some sort, on a glowing table and hidden under a white sheet, and the doctor and the maid (now dressed as a nurse) pour thick transparent goo overtop and proceed to caress her slick, wet body through the sheet. I had no idea what to make of this scene (is she a clone?), but it sure was sensual.
The fact of the matter is that, aside for the fellatio sequences, the picture isn’t especially explicit: Granted, the actors simulate intercourse in various positions, but they’re often wrapped in kimonos, positioned in such a way that we don’t see anything aside for some breasts – some of the time. All told, however, there is an abundance of discreetly naked flesh.
The scene that confounded me the most was one in which Ishida is taken to a set resembling pre-WWII Japan by some soldiers, is given a gun and is told to shoot himself. When he resists, they bring out his assistant and threaten her. I didn’t know if this was the recreation of an event, if he was reliving something, or if he was having some sort of delirium.
There was also the small matter of Omiya becoming a woman towards the end, after Sada’s trial. Why was he a woman, suddenly? At one point, Omiya decided to pull his/her panties down to show that there was no penis there. I didn’t know if it was to prove that he/she was now a woman, or to indicate that, like Ishida, he/she had been castrated by Sada.
Could Omiya have once been Ishida?
In any event, the picture ends with Ishida’s assistant bringing the police to the dark, seemingly empty house. They look all over for him and eventually find him dead, naked, propped up against a wall… choked and with his genitals missing – with Sada’s name engraved in his thigh. Meanwhile, Sada puts his penis inside her and gives birth to a child.
Someday, I hope that ‘Johnen: Sada no ai’ will be made available with English or French subtitles so that I may understand what is going on. Perhaps it will be a disappointment: Everything that seemed surrealistic will now be explained and may ultimately not make much sense. But at least my curiosity will be satisfied. But, if I’m lucky, it will be even more fascinating.
I look forward to that day.
Date of viewing: July 18, 2016