Criterion Prediction #238: Sada, by Alexander Miller
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Cast: Hitomi Kuroki, Tsurutaro Kataoki, Norihei Miki, Kippei Shiina
Synopsis: A colorfully wound biographical narrative framed around the real life of Sada Abe, chronicling her earlier years as a prostitute, then an aspiring restaurateur and the eventual case that would bring her fame, strangling her lover and severing his penis as a keepsake.
Critique: Anyone familiar with Japanese cinema or international movies in general has either heard of or seen Nagisa Oshima’s infamous and controversial In the Realm of the Senses. The sexually explicit chronicle of the hedonistic lovers Sada and Kichi, that (spoiler) ends with Sada suffocating and castrating her lover in some erotic mishap. Oshima’s film has it’s devoted following and seemingly irrefutable status as one of the most important Japanese films of the new wave. I’ll be the first to say that Oshima’s no slouch and that his confrontational and engaging work is immense and engaging but In the Realm of the Senses left me cold. The characters aren’t very engaging and the heavy-handed symbolism grows ponderous. So, enter the raucous, gleeful energy of Nobuhiko Obayashi. Who decides that he’s going to make a movie of the same story, instead opting for a broadened narrative scope, emphasis on the life of Sada Abe, as well as her amour fou partner in crime. Humanizing them beyond their ribald indulgences and doing so with his zealous artistic tendencies.
Maybe there’s a bias on my part. But perhaps it’s Obayashi’s interpretation, one of freewheeling bravura, romance, emotional stakes and giddy, excitable humor. Sada is unconsciously bombastic in the best sense of the word. Obayashi is one of those great artists who has a childlike curiosity and a stunning vision that is mature and endlessly playful. Sada opens with a mission statement that informs us that we’re tumbling down the life of someone who might not be virtuous or upright but there’s a wafting installation of humanism. Obayashi’s film isn’t afraid to shine a light down the less desirable facets of Sada Abe’s life; prostitution, venereal diseases, adultery, but there’s an instinctual warmth. Whereas so many other filmmakers would feel the need to utilize ironic juxtaposition to “soften the blow” or condescend to the viewer with feigned levity as if it’s transactional for comfort’s sake. A period film with a modern execution, Sada has all the popping enthusiasm we’d associate with Obayashi and his bag of tricks; shifting color palettes and filters, jumping from black and white to bright, colorful tableaus, jocular sight gags, embellished performances that veer on cartoonish. And, its construction is a smooth, and breezy viewing experience that will likely leave its audience with a feeling of erratic joy, reminding us that art can also be revelatory and fun.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For many North American audiences, Obayashi is “the guy who made Hausu.” I’m not embarrassed to admit that I, too, made the same claim.
Of course, Obayashi enjoyed a prolific career before and after his infamous cult darling and, among his many features, Sada is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.
It looks like Criterion has the rights to the film, and, on home video, there’s an OOP DVD of Sada from Home Video Entertainment (HVE). And movies formerly distributed by HVE (The bulk of the Zatoichi series, as well as Mikey and Nicky and Pale Flower) have found a way of getting a spine number in recent years. From where I’m standing, Sada looks like a lock.