It's the first Sada Abe film, coming out the year before Nagisa Oshima's more famous In the Realm of the Senses
. In addition it's also a Nikkatsu Roman Porno film, which is a genre I'd better spend some time explaining.
Up until the 1960s, the big Japanese studios hadn't got involved in porn. However at the start of the 1970s, they found themselves struggling for survival in the same way as the Hammer and Carry On films in Britain. Film and TV from abroad (especially America) was so good that it was crowding out the domestic film companies. Their solution was sex. Big studios got into dirty movies. Toei invented the Pinky Violence genre, while Nikkatsu went even further and started making Roman Porno films with all the production values and artistic talent they'd previously been using on mainstream releases. Technically these are just classier porn, but in practice the result was a generation of top-flight studio directors being allowed almost complete artistic freedom, if they included at least four nude scenes an hour.
The results were often excellent. There would always be a Roman Porno film in Japanese movie critics' top ten lists every year for as long as Nikkatsu made them. They did three a month for seventeen years, until Adult Videos killed theatrical porn in the 1980s.
A Woman Called Sada Abe is supposedly considered one of the top five Roman Pornos. It's been called Noboru Tanaka's masterpiece, while Junko Miyashita's performance in the title role is excellent and many Japanese critics prefer it to Oshima's film
. It was also a big box-office success and the critics listed it among their top ten of the year.
Me, I think it fails.
One obvious difference is the lack of hardcore sex. Lots of nudity, but no groin shots. The Sada-Ishida relationship feels more arm's-length, with fewer close-ups and more classically Japanese cinematography. Oshima is in your face. Tanaka is more discreet. Another difference is that they're telling more of Sada's story, with brief flashbacks of her youth and more importantly a third act after the murder, in which Sada is the talk of Japan and she's reflecting on what she's done. In theory I like that.
What I dislike about this film is a niggling sense that, for lack of a better description, it feels as if it was written by a man. Of course Oshima's film
was too, but it doesn't feel that way. Oshima takes us inside Sada's psychology so completely and terrifyingly that to me it feels like the definitive take on the character, against which all other attempts can only be compared. Tanaka's Sada though is more conventionally feminine. She's less threatening. She's often defined by her man. It's Ishida who gets jealous and attacks Sada after she's gone for money to her former patron, Omiya, which for me was an interesting but surprising scene. She keeps saying "forgive me" as she murders Ishida, then afterwards has regrets as a song plays on the soundtrack that's saying "I did a wrong thing, I'm an idiot". I've seen claims that Tanaka's Sada is more realistic than Oshima's, but to me she came across as more in line with conservative male ideas of what she must have been like.
Junko Miyashita though is indeed excellent. She captures the contradictions in this character who isn't really thinking about the future. She sells Sada's happiness after killing Ishida. I may not be wild about the material she's been given to play, but I've no quarrel with what Miyashita's doing with it. Furthermore that final act has no equivalent in Oshima's film
and yet is indispensible to this one, upending the storytelling focus. It gives the spotlight over entirely to Miyashita and she's up to the challenge.
Mind you, Tanaka gives us more gore and mutilation. No groin, but he makes up for it by lingering. Ew. It's also startling to see how this Sada plays with the corpse afterwards.
There are some historical touches. The marching soldiers aren't as memorable as Oshima's, but we hear on the radio about the Imperial Japanese Army's attempted coup d'etat in February 1936. This is also the only film where I noticed them not just using Sada's (famous) real name, but instead also the false names she went by.
To be honest, I'm being too harsh here. If I hadn't been watching all the Sada Abe films in reverse chronological order, I'd have been impressed. It's a proper film. I wasn't watching or judging it as porn, but as a cinematic interpretation of Sada's story. I've been beating it with the stick of Oshima's film
, but that's an ugly thing to do since that film was a masterpiece. This isn't. It's merely a strong and well-told cinematic retelling of a true story, with a laudable focus on the psychology of its lead character. It's just that, for me, its ideas about Sada herself feel a little too simplified. There's nothing complicated about her masochism, or challenging in her relationship with Ishida. It's also shorter than the other Sada films. It's capable of being twisted, but Miyashita isn't scary.