Film Review: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Sada”

Sada Abe’s story is so intrinsically linked with the gruesome crime she committed and, in turn, Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 picture “In the Realm of the Senses” that it’s practically impossible to watch Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Sada” (1998) with a clean slate. Having had a well-known auteur slumming it in the roman-porno genre garnered Oshima’s film a lot of accolades, but the sensationalistic presentation blurred and reduced Sada’s story to that of spectacle.

Obayashi’s picture isn’t quite the final say in regards to her life, but “Sada” was the only film at the time of its release that expanded the mythology of Sada, and didn’t focus primarily on the shocking and prurient elements of her infamy. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the director skirts around the most defining event in the heroine’s life. Instead, “Sada” attempts to give Abe the dignity that was often lacking in other interpretations of her story.

Obayashi opens his picture not with Sada herself, but with a person, Takiguchi (Kyûsaku Shimada), posing as both the omniscient narrator and an actual character in the film. He quickly recounts Sada’s story before the camera tracks him into a movie theater. The film goes black and the story opens proper, yet Obayashi teases the audience by opening on a woman standing outside a gate attempting to gain entrance.  From the oblique dialogue you soon come to realize the woman is Sada’s mother and she is futilely trying to get justice for her daughter.

After this scene, the film cuts to a number of many kinetically edited and visually dynamic sequences, the first of which depicting our titular heroine being raped and then meeting a young doctor named Okada (Kippei Shiina) who becomes the object of her affection throughout most of the picture after he nurses her back to health. Obayashi spends only a few minutes on their relationship before tearing the young couple apart. Even though he leaves the film very early on, the character lingers mainly in the way Hitomi Kuroki, the actress cast as Sada Abe, acts whenever Okada is brought up and also through the visual leitmotif of fried donuts, a snack that the good doctor gave to her during her recovery, that Sada gorges on throughout the story.

Okada’s presence seem to be a metaphor for Sada’s tragic idealism. No matter how genuine and true their love is, inevitably the universal law of entropy dictates that everything breaks down. To illustrate this point further, Obayashi parallels Sada’s relationship with Okada with her amorous affair with Tatsuzo Kikumoto (Tsurutarō Kataoka), infamous in her story primarily because he would end up getting killed and having his member chopped off by her. Though she and Okada had a relatively chaste relationship, that doesn’t mean her feelings for him were any less strong or real when compared to her affair with Tatsuzo. Okada’s gentleness was a salve for her after being sexually humiliated, and Tatsuzo’s attention also acts as an ointment later on as the world around her begins to crumble.

Oshima’s earlier picture spent the majority of its runtime making the correlation between the heroine’s amour fou romance with her paramour and the rise of imperialism in Japan. Obayashi, on the other hand, has no interest in pushing any specific political agenda. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he ignores the big historic events of that era; he instead places them in the background mainly as time stamps to alert his audience.

The film is structured as Sada’s story, utilizing text, an omniscient narrator, and even interrogation scenes where Sada reveals her thoughts and feelings to a detective, the audience surrogate, as her story moves along on-screen. There is little to no time spent in investigating the other characters in the film, even Okada and Tatsuzo are for the most part one-dimensional. Also, Obayashi makes a bold choice by seguing from black-and-white to color at times from scene to scene – other times from frame to frame – or, in an even bolder move, only a portion of the frame is left colorized. This choice must have been made to create a visual contrast between objective reality (the black-and-white sequences) and Sada’s very unique perspective (the bright and expressionistic color palettes present whenever her story reaches a milestone).

By taking the time to craft a backstory for Sada, Obayashi obliterates the scandal sheet sensationalism that has ruled its telling. That said, “Sada” should not be mistaken for the end-all-be-all telling of her tale. The brilliance of the picture lies in the fact that like any great storyteller, Obayashi followed the old adage that, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This reimagining does just that. It reintroduces a familiar figure in Japanese popular culture, making Sada Abe no longer the subject of prurient interest but, quite possibly, one of the most unique female figures in 20th century Japan.

“Sada” screens on Sun., Nov. 22, at 1 p.m. as part of the Nobuhiko Obayashi retrospective at the Japan Society in New York.  For ticket information, go to