A travesty. Much of it I strongly disliked. It's about a real person who for all we know might still have been alive when it came out, while it's at once sticking very closely to the letter of what happened and insulting its spirit. However I appreciate the historical context it provides and in the end, despite its best efforts, it managed to challenge some of my assumptions.
First, a history lesson. In 1936 Sada Abe strangled her lover (Kichizo Ishida) in his sleep, carved her name into the corpse and cut off his genitals to carry around with her. That's gruesome, but not extraordinary. What's different about Sada is that she claimed to have done it out of love. Her story duly became a national sensation. Japan went crazy for her. The police record of her interrogation and confession became a bestseller, then after World War Two people started calling her an enemy of the old regime and a symbol of individuality and freedom. Sada wrote her autobiography. These days she's part of popular culture, with any number of books and at least four movies about her.
What kind of person was she? Why did she do it? She was raped as a teenager and worked a lot in the sex industry, as a low-grade geisha and then simply as a prostitute. She also had a nuclear-powered sex drive, with one of her former boyfriends saying, "She was really strong, a real powerful one. Even though I am pretty jaded, she was enough to astound me. She wasn't satisfied unless we did it two, three or four times a night." She even tried to have sex with Ishida's severed penis. As for her motives... "I loved him so much, I wanted him all to myself. But since we were not husband and wife, as long as he lived he could be embraced by other women. I knew that if I killed him no other woman could ever touch him again, so I killed him." However despite this, in later life she'd also be called a "tender, warm figure of salvation for future generations" and would always be clear (to the point of lawsuits) that she'd acted out of love and wasn't just some pervert.
My guess? It seems clear she was a hell of a person. Donald Richie has written about meeting her. She sounds formidable.
This film is about her life and there are two things I dislike about it. The first is the director's way of making it family-friendly and the second is Hitomi Kuroki's performance in the title role.
Firstly, Nobuhiko Obayashi. Surprisingly this isn't his first film, but instead his directing credits go back to 1977 and the notoriously trippy House
. In that case, I've no idea what was going through his head. Maybe he was trying to do a Memories of Matsuko
? They're superficially similar. Both are doing heavy material in a light-hearted style, but the difference is that Obayashi's goofiness is trivialising the material. We begin with the slightly comedic rape of a fourteen-year-old. There's annoying slapstick. Our look at a prostitute's working life is basically a Benny Hill routine. The pantomime bitch-slapping between Sada and her boyfriend's wife made me roll my eyes.
You could put some of this straight into a Carry On film. In fact, in one way it's more timid than even the Carry Ons, because we don't see any nudity. (That old man getting into the bath doesn't count.) Yeah, right. A film about Sada Abe that's keeping everything covered up... what next, Disney's Oedipus Rex?
Furthermore, Obayashi's showing off. He swaps between black-and-white and super-saturated colour. Sometimes he'll even have a circle of (usually red) colour in the middle of a black-and-white scene, making it look like the Japanese flag. In fairness, this film's use of colour is interesting. He'll also do things like inserting micro-cuts to remind us of silent movies when we're watching that period of history. One character is sometimes shown as a cardboard cut-out of himself. To my surprise, this film won a few film festival awards: Best Cinematography, Best Editing and the Berlin International Film Festival's FIPRESCI Prize. What's more, Obayashi was nominated for a Golden Berlin Bear for the film's "unique combination of innovative style and human observation." That's one way of putting it, I suppose.
Then there's Hitomi Kuroki. Ironically the performances around her are quite good. Tsurutaro Kataoka is particularly memorable as the film's Ishida-equivalent, finding far more in the man than Tatsuya Fuji did in 1976. I also liked Norihei Miki, although the role isn't exactly stretching. He died in January the following year, by the way. Kuroki though has been given terrifying shoes to fill and is leaving about 95% of them empty. The main notes she's playing are "childish" and "shallow". She doesn't live up to what other characters say about her. Her discussions of sex, death and strangling are merely a bit dull. She's serene and vanilla, rather than intense and disturbing. The lead-up to the film's big scene ends up being Kataoka's, not hers, simply because he's acting and she isn't, really.
Kuroki's CV suggests that she's mostly a TV actress and to me that seems about right. She'd be fine for everyday roles. I also have to admit that her performance suits the film's style and so she might have been simply following Obayashi's orders.
However all that said, the script is being impressively faithful. One thing it's doing is going all the way back to Sada's teenage years, instead of jumping straight into her relationship with Ishida. We see her life as a whole. We meet her parents. There's a lot of historical detail, so for instance she does indeed catch syphilis while working as a prostitute (although of course the way they talk about it, you'd think it was just a cold). They give historical context on what happened afterwards and what people came to see in Sada's crime. Furthermore Sada's a stronger character on the page than Kuroki makes her, sticking closely to what the real Sada said and did. The ending in particular is paradoxically challenging, since Obayashi and Kuroki are making what happens look improbable and unconvincing... and then they pull out a photo of the real Sada and you realise with a shock that they were sticking to the facts.
There is one annoying addition, though. It's a big one too, although at least they tell us they're making it up. When Sada was raped as a teenager, this film invents a medical student who helps her and wins her heart, but has an incurable disease which means he has to go away and never see her again. The bastard doesn't even say why. Needless to say, she remembers him all her life, etc. What a load of rubbish.
This is a complicated and stylish film, but in bad ways. It's not disturbing or scary, which is just wrong for a film about Sada Abe. It's deliberately taking some stupid-looking choices that on reflection I find almost offensive, while on top of that I didn't feel I'd been given any insight into Sada herself. However if you can see past the nonsense, her story is being told faithfully and more fully than in more celebrated films. That makes it worth watching, perhaps, but only as a supplement to them.