The celebrated case of Sada Abe, who in 1936 became an overnight celebrity in Japan after strangling her lover and slicing off his penis, was memorably filmed in 1976 by Nagisa Oshima as “In the Realm of the Senses.” That film is still unique in movie history as a major production by a name director in which the actors actually had sex in front of the camera. In contrast, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s stylish, stylized new film is discretion itself as it explores the background of the notorious case. Likely to split reviewers into opposing camps, pic made a good start when it copped the international film critics (Fipresci) prize at the Berlin film fest.
Obayashi’s intention here seems to be not only to present a rounded portrait of the film’s tragic protagonist, but also to pay tribute to various film genres of the past. Bursting with invention and trickery, the film constantly calls attention to itself and, at the same time, distances the audience. These devices, often clever but just as often distracting, will alienate some viewers while entrancing others.
Pic kicks off with a scene in which one of its marginal characters, Takiguchi, who we later discover is Sada’s brother-in-law and pimp, addresses the audience, inviting them to enjoy the movie. In the background, patrons flock into a ’30s-era movie house.
Sada’s life is sketched in broad brushstrokes. She was born in 1905 into a poor household, and at 14 was violently raped. Medical student Okada finds her bleeding, gives her medical attention, consoles her and brings her donuts. For Sada, this is love at first sight. It’s only later that she learns Okada is a leper and is banished to an island. Though she never sees him again, Sada never forgets him, keeping a surgical knife he gave her and regularly thereafter consuming donuts.
Not long afterward, Sada is forced into prostitution at a geisha house. She is servicing her first client when the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 occurs. Over the years, she has hundreds of customers (split-second imagery depicts the many and varied faces that loomed over her) until, at the age of 29, she’s taken up by the kindly Tachibana, a member of the Nagoya City Council, and becomes his mistress.
He moves her into a lodging house that doubles as a restaurant, and she soon finds herself attracted to the owner, Tatsuzo. A passionate relationship ensues until the lovers are driven away by Tatsuzo’s understandably jealous wife. Short on money, they hole up in an inn and make love constantly, adding to the excitement by playing strangulation games. During one such game, and with Tatsuzo’s apparent compliance, Saga actually throttles him. Using Okada’s knife, she removes his penis in order to keep a part of him with her. She’s soon arrested, but serves a surprisingly light sentence.
The film ends with the suggestion that Sada, who changed her name and successfully disappeared after her prison term, may still be alive; she would be 93 years old.
Oshima’s film concentrated only on the final relationship between Sada and Tatsuzo, and attempted to ex-plore, with frank explicitness, the depths of passion and sexuality. On that level, Obayashi takes a far more conventional approach; there’s plenty of simulated sex, but the lovers remain chastely covered at all times.
On the other hand, the director has a great deal of fun playing with the film medium. He switches from black-and-white to color and back again, sometimes within the same scene, and sometimes combining color and monochrome in a single image. He uses all manner of cinematic trickery: pixelation, speeded-up footage (a scene involving a police chase is presumably a tribute to the Keystone Kops), animation. He uses symbolism with a deliberate lack of subtlety and in one scene lovemaking is interrupted when the film appears to stick in the projector gate.
While this sort of clever game-playing won’t be to everyone’s taste, the director shows his affection for the medium via scenes staged very much in the style of classical Japanese films of the past. He also attempts to place Sada’s story against a background of political unrest and rising militarism, a device also used by Oshima. Both films include sequences of marching soldiers as a counterpoint to the lovers, lost in their own private world and remote from ominous outside events.
Hitomi Kuroki gives a luminous performance as Sada, and the supporting cast is flawless. Camerawork, production and costume design are all of the first order, and there’s an attractive music score.