I think it’s fair to say that at this point any film about Sada Abe faces the high risk of being compared to 1976’s "In the Realm of the Senses". That take on her story earns its exemplary status not only for its famous non-simulated sex scenes, but also Nagisa Oshima’s masterful direction. But the legendary case (in which, in the year of 1936, Sada became so erotically infatuated with a man that she killed him by strangulation to heighten their pleasure during lovemaking and, afterwards, cut off his member and kept it as a token of affection) is so fascinating that it certainly deserves to be examined and interpreted from different points of view, Oshima’s, as great as it is, merely being one.
Fortunately, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s "Sada" takes the smart approach and provides a completely different and unique version of the story of Sada Abe. First of all, it immediately sets out to look beyond just the 1936 case, presenting a much wider profile of Sada and her life. Surely enough, the first image of her shows her as a child shortly before the film jumps to 1919 when she was fourteen, had her first sexual encounter and, as she claims through the voiceover narration, her story truly started. From there, Sada proceeds to highlight certain events and figures from her life that have been overlooked in the past, most notably the character of Okada, a young man who was a close friend to her before, being afflicted with Hansen’s disease, he was sent away to an island institute. One image shows the two of them sitting together with their bare feet stretched out in front of them, a little smile on her face as she nibbles a doughnut and rests her head on his shoulder: a perfect image of innocence. Later, when Okada says goodbye to her one rainy day, he mimes cutting out his heart and giving it to her to keep – a gesture that more fully explains her similar action in the 1936 incident (during which, as the film interestingly implies, Sada was still very much concerned about Okada and his whereabouts). Also explored in depth are her relationships with her parents and Tachibana, a school principal and client of his who supports her. Through such details and Hitomi Kuroki’s impressive portrayal, Sada is depicted as a more humanized and emotionally sensitive figure than the unfair sensationalist image of her as a castrating dragon lady. Along those same lines, her fiery affair with Tatsuzo Kikumoto (named Kichizo in Oshima’s film and here fittingly described as “the fateful man”) and its tragic outcome rightfully continue to be shown not as acts of anger or jealousy, but of love.
As in "In the Realm of the Senses", style acts as a filter through which the story is delivered, but "Sada’s" is significantly more elaborate and flamboyant. Right at the start of the film, a mustached man (later revealed to be a friend of Sada’s) walks onscreen, directly greets the audience members and welcomes them to the film they are about to see. From there, the film piles up a slew of stylistic elements such as abrupt switches between black-and-white and color, drastic camera movements, unusual shot angles, slow motion, fast motion, exaggerated acting, blatantly artificial backdrops and more. Such experimentation is often deployed in a spirit of fun, anything-goes glee, such as when Sada gives a lively shamisen performance only to be interrupted by the Great Earthquake of 1923, or later when she and Tatsuzo’s ridiculous-looking wife duke it out in pure Looney Tunes fashion. The film’s overall tone is light and peppy, though seriousness is maintained when it is due (the later half is built around interview segments as Sada is questioned about her relationship with Tatsuzo by an interrogator). This distinctive, highly unique form creates a contradictory effect with the material it presents: while "Sada" aims to provide more insight into this woman, these extravagant techniques situate it in a cinematic fantasy world in which the facts are inevitably distorted.
Though it sheds more light on Sada Abe and her life, "Sada" ultimately continues to build up the mythic legacy surrounding her. As I mentioned in a previous review, people love to hear the same stories over and over again, and if the story is as interesting and compelling as Sada’s, all the better. Not to be placed above or below "In the Realm of the Senses" so much as alongside it, Obayashi’s interpretation is a fine film on its own, reveling in her tale and containing enough energy and creativity to make it a worthwhile and enjoyable pursuit.