It's another Sada Abe movie, but only approximately. It's an arty piece of experimental theatre, but as a movie, in which a photographer is the present-day reincarnation of Sada Abe's lover.
Firstly, background. Sada Abe is the ex-prostitute who in 1936 murdered her lover and cut off his genitals... because she loved him. That's what she said, anyway. At her trial, she even seemed proud of it. The case became a national sensation and ever since her life has been pawed over by generations of artists, authors, philosophers and filmmakers. One of those movies was a masterpiece, In the Realm of the Senses
, but most of them (although not all) have been made with an eye to one-handed audience appreciation.
This film though I didn't really understand. That's partly because the subtitles were in Chinese, but not entirely because I was following most of the dialogue. A bigger problem, I think, is that the film isn't particularly interested in storytelling. It's arty, at times almost abstract. The characters feel like artistic posturing, not like people with motivations. There are scenes in which symbolism has become the text and there's no apparent surface meaning left. The film jumps between 1936 and 2008, but neither era's scenes seem real. It's hard to say that the film's even telling a story in the first place and I certainly wouldn't say that what the characters think or feel has much influence on it.
This is deliberate. Rokuro Mochizuki is rejecting realism. Look at the colour palette, for instance, which is practically screaming at you. He fills the screen with red at every opportunity, to go with all that black and white. Despite everything, in its way, the movie works. I kept watching. You'll go insane if you came here looking for a good story, but that's so obviously not the intention here that I found myself placidly following all these other notes it's hitting instead.
I'll describe the story, such as it is. In 1936, Sada Abe murders her lover. (This is the first thing we see in the film.) We then jump to the present day and a photographer who's shooting a model on the beach. He faints. He calls Sada's name. He sees a brayingly giggly ghost in 11th century make-up (eh?) who leads him on a wild goose chase and... okay, I can't remember the next bit. (This is a bad sign, since I only watched the film this morning.) The important thing though is that he ends up meeting some white-haired old dude and his younger, buxom wife. The husband insists to the point of autism that sex is entirely a matter of procreation and comes across in the film not as a human being, but as an embodiment of a line of argument.
The wife though is Sada Abe, or at least it's the same actress. Similarly the photographer is also the man we saw killed in 1936. What follows now is of course sex and nudity, along with in due course a silly trial, an excerpt from a snuff movie (if you're a fish) and 1930s soldiers forcing the photographer into uniform.
The burning question I haven't addressed yet, though. How sleazy is this? Answer: very. That's the main thing that makes it watchable, to be honest. In the lead role is Aya Sugimoto, well known for (a) her breasts and (b) the notorious Flower & Snake films. She turned forty in 2008, but she's still looking great. This time she's not involved in S&M, but there aren't many scenes here where she's fully clothed from start to finish and in addition she performs fellatio on a lightsabre. Seriously. It's shaped like a phallus and it's where the man's penis should be, but it's glowing like a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. In fairness Japanese porn is known for something similar, but that's just a digital mosaic.
In fact there's so much nudity that it's not that sexy. You just go "oh, breasts".
The acting is... what it is. It hardly matters. No one really sprang to my attention, if only because you're often not watching their faces. The standout exception is that maid who seems to think she's auditioning for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which leads to her stealing the film despite having no dialogue I can remember. What's more, this fits. When your job in the courtroom scene is to put red roses between the teeth of twenty black-uniformed mimes in whiteface, what direction is there to go but over the top?
That husband's hair is something else though. "Mane" doesn't do it justice.
However a film like this isn't about its story. It's about what it's saying and the effectiveness of its symbolism. The courtroom discusses the meaning of love and someone orders Sugimoto not to use the word. Is she a slave to her DNA? Its judicial stuffed shirts are at once pruriently condemning and leering, although none of them can hold a candle in outrageousness to some of the dinosaurs of the Japanese judiciary in real life. The imagery of Sugimoto metaphorically giving birth at two ends is of mildly unsettling interest. The wartime execution scene I'm afraid I didn't understand, though.
The weird thing though is that this is based on a novel, despite looking so experimental and visual. Shigenori Takechi adapted his own book. This forces me to reconsider the characters as characters, which in fairness is attempted in the film itself when we eventually return to Sada Abe and Kichizo Ishida in 1936. We see their final hours together. These scenes aren't bad. Unfortunately they're overly familiar, presenting the same verbatim dialogue that appears in every Sada Abe film, to which the actors bring nothing special. They're perfectly okay, but they're coming to it cold. The movie's fragmented nature means they're not immersed in the material as have been all the other Abes and Ishidas over the years.
Would I recommend this? No, I wouldn't. However I am slightly surprised in hindsight that I managed to watch this through to the end, which has to be a kind of thumbs up. In its experimental, arty way, it sort of works. I never abandoned ship, which furthermore can't entirely be attributed to Sugimoto's nudity. After all, Sola Aoi and her friends couldn't stop me from drifting away from Big Tits Dragon: Zombies vs. Strippers
. I also couldn't call it the worst Sada movie, with the 1998 one
making me use the word "travesty" and there being at least three more pink versions I know of: A Woman Called Sada Abe
(1975), Heiseiban: Abe Sada: Anta ga Hoshii (1999) and Abe Sada: The Last Seven Days
(2011). Admittedly Japanese pink films can be surprisingly good, but Yuma Asami sounds outrageously miscast to me in the last of those and there at least I'm not getting my hopes up.
I don't much like this film and I'm certainly not planning on rewatching it, but I'm not without respect for it. It enrichens the body of Sada Abe cinema. It's both as high-minded and low-minded as you can get, in a very Japanese way. It's sincere. It's trying something different.