The celebrated real-life murder case involving Abe Sada has inspired at least four Japanese movies. Of course the best-known version is Nagisa Ôshima's 1976 In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida). Noboru Tanaka was always irritated that Ôshima's movie attracted more international attention and was more highly regarded by critics than his own version, A Woman Called Abe Sada (Jitsuroku Abe Sada). Having now seen both films, I have to say I can sympathise with Tanaka’s annoyance.
In 1936 Abe Sada had caused something of a sensation in Japan by strangling her lover and then cutting off his penis and carrying it around with her. She then disappeared, sparking a nation-wide media frenzy until her eventual arrest. She served five years in prison as a result, and was still alive in the 1970s.
In the Realm of the Senses was famous (or infamous) for featuring non-simulated sex. Ôshima was able to get away with that because technically it was a French film, but it was still banned in Japan and to this day has not been released uncut in that country. Tanaka on the other hand, making his movie for the Nikkatsu Studio, had to abide by the very strict Japanese censorship requirements regarding sexual content, requirements so stringent that Japanese erotic films of that era are tame even by the standards of western softcore porn of the time. And obviously very tame indeed compared to the hardcore content of Ôshima’s movie.
The interesting thing is though, that Tanaka’s movie is the more erotic of the two. Talented directors always tend to be able to some extent subvert even the strictest censorship, and Tanaka was a very talented director indeed. His movie also feels kinkier. And it has a greater emotional impact. It’s also more entertaining. It might sound like I’m claiming that A Woman Called Abe Sada is in fact a better movie than the critically lauded In the Realm of the Senses, that’s exactly what I am claiming
Ôshima of course inserted a few seconds of footage of Japanese soldiers marching down a street, allowing him to claim his film as a metaphor for the rise of militarism in Japan in the 30s and the struggle against political oppression. He was making a Serious Political Statement. The only problem with that is, the scene in question was pretty much copied from a similar scene in Tanaka’s earlier movie. And Tanaka included at least one other scene dealing with the war against China, which should have led to his movie being regarded as An Even More Serious Political Statement. But that cut no ice with film critics in the West because A Woman Called Abe Sada was merely a low-budget exploitation movie made as part of Nikkatsu’s “roman porno” series, while Ôshima’s movie was made by a Serious Film Artist.
And as a Serious Film Artist Ôshima didn’t have to worry abut his movie being labelled porn. it was Art. To make sure people got the point, he made the sex scenes extremely boring (a technique copied recently by Michael Winterbottom in 9 Songs which also features some of the most tedious unsimulated sex you’re ever going to be unfortunate enough to see). Tanaka on the other hand thought that since the story was about a sexual obsession it might be a good idea to make it actually sexy, and he did so. Interestingly enough the Japanese seemed to agree with Mr Tanaka and his movie was very well received in that country.
All that is not to say that Tanaka’s version simply emphasises the sex. It also conveys the emotional intensity of the relationship far more effectively, and makes Abe Sada’s actions more plausible and more tragic. Her madness is more terrifying and yet we feel more sympathy for her. Partly this is because Junko Miyashita is a much better actress than Eiko Matsuda. Partly it’s because the character is better developed so we understand that she was genuinely motivated by love, even if her method of expressing it was a little unconventional. Tanaka’s version is even more claustrophobic than Ôshima’s (one of the side benefits of a low budget which means most of the film is shot on a single set).
Tanaka’s version differs from Ôshima’s in another significant respect. The key event of the film happens two-thirds of the way in, and the rest of the movie focuses heart-breakingly on Abe Sada’s utter inability to come to terms with what she’d done. Once again I think Tanaka’s choice was sounder than Ôshima’s.
Another fascinating aspect of the two films is that the most controversial scenes of In the Realm of the Senses are all present in A Woman Called Abe Sada. Yes, including the unusual choice of marinade for a mushroom dish. They’re much less graphic, but in some ways more effective.
Tanaka went on to make other notable movies, including the superb The Watcher in the Attic (available on DVD from Mondo Macabro) and Angel Guts: Nami. But A Woman Called Abe Sada is generally considered to be his finest work, and it’s an exceptionally good movie.
The Pagan Region 2 DVD features a reasonably good widescreen transfer and some extras, and it’s very cheap and it’s in print. It’s also available on DVD from Hanzibar Films in what is claimed to be a Region 0 PAL release. It’s more expensive and I have no idea how the quality compares.