I watched this back-to-back with Sada (1998)
, after furthermore doing lots of reading up about Sada Abe. That will obviously have made the film more powerful, since not only did I know that Sada was going to strangle her lover and cut off his genitals, but I also knew exactly how everything they did beforehand was leading up to that. Furthermore, to state the obvious, I also knew that it's a true story.
However even allowing for that, the film's still a masterpiece.
To state the obvious, it's one of the most famous arthouse films in the world, banned pretty much everywhere for decades. It's mainstream cinema, but full of hardcore sex scenes. I mean chock-a-block. Nothing stops these two, not even an audience. Sada's emotions are so powerful that she's going to love Ishida literally to death, while he's a sex maniac who'll take a fat old innkeeper if there's no one else in the house. Eventually the servants refusing to go in their room because they're at it non-stop, all day, every day. It smells and Sada doesn't even allow herself time off to eat, having more interesting things to put in her mouth.
However as I said, it's also a proper film, with emotional truth. The sex never seems like pornography. Instead it feels more honest than regular cinema, since that's what these people are doing and yet in any other film we'd be looking away discreetly. Oshima's doing the same thing Peter Shaffer did in Equus, which is to bring us to a horrifying understanding of how a human being could do something unthinkable. I don't know if this is how it was really like between Sada and Ishida, but it feels so raw that you'll hardly be able to imagine it happening any other way. Dramatically, it's truthful.
I believed the sado-masochism. I believed the way they got into experimenting with auto-erotic asphyxiation. I believed the differences in how much it turned each of them on and how this builds into something uncomfortable to watch. Most of all though, I believed in the subtle and awful journey of this Sada Abe. My God, she's frightening. Look at the scene where Ishida says he's scared. Me, I was terrified just watching them and I didn't have Sada's cord around my neck.
Comparing it with other Sada movies is interesting. Its timespan is the most focused of any of them, starting with Sada already at Ishida's restaurant and basically ending with the killing and cutting. This means it goes quite slowly. Me, I was on board with that, but don't go in expecting a plot-driven movie. However the actual scenes and dialogue are almost startlingly similar to those of the 1998 film
and I bet that that's true of the 1975 film
too. There's so much source material that it's like seeing different productions of a stage play. The text stays the same. We're just seeing what a new director and cast are doing with it. Sada herself twice gave a detailed account of what happened, once in her confession to the police after being arrested and once in her 1948 autobiography, Memoirs of Abe Sada: Half a Lifetime of Love. Anyway, this version has its own particular emphasis and some scenes you won't see in other films, the most eyebrow-raising of which often involve geishas. Was that a traditional Japanese wedding custom? I don't remember that at mine.
Oh, and the gore effect at the end? I could happily never see that again in my life, thank you.
It's capable of being funny, with for instance the old inkeeper lady. Its recreation of 1936 is far more immersive than Obayashi's, as with for instance the trains and the soldiers marching in the street. It's got a scene where someone inserts a boiled egg in a woman's private parts, then eats it. Also, most notoriously of all, it has a scene in which Sada grabs the penis of a naked little boy, which is still a sticking point with the BBFC today and shows that this is a woman who's travelled a long, long way from anything that you or I might regard as healthy.
Most importantly though, it's showing us a murder that grew out of love. You can watch it coming. Be afraid.