Sada (SADA〜戯作・阿部定の生涯, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998)

Sada poster“Facts can easily become fiction when recounted by someone, even by oneself. But with a bit of sincerity lies can become truth”, our genial guide explains, paradoxically telling us that the heroine, a woman he regards as a loveable kid sister, wants to tell us her story herself. Apologising in advance for her “rudeness”,  he reveals to us that the woman is none other than the “notorious” Sada Abe, a woman who, apparently now forgotten, was once a front page sensation for having killed her lover and cut off his penis to carry him with her always.

Despite the narrator’s claims that Sada’s fame has faded, her story has proved fertile cinematic ground, most famously inspiring Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses which sees her claustrophobic descent into sexual obsession as a reaction to the intense austerity of militarism. Obayashi, however, is keen to remember that that aside from the newspaper headlines, the salaciousness and peculiar romanticism of her story, Sada was a real woman who suffered in an intensely patriarchal society and was perhaps seeking something that the world was unable to give her.

As she reminds us, Sada too had a childhood. Obayashi opens the film with a young Sada innocently throwing hoops over a tall phallic object. Six years later, her life changes when a college boy drags her off the street into a nearby inn and rapes her, claiming that she is well known as a good time girl and that he is perfectly entitled to behave in the way he is behaving. Deed done, the college boy leaves but Sada (Hitomi Kuroki) is rescued by the gentlemanly figure of sickly medical student Okada (Kippei Shina) who has a patch over his eye and a romantic disposition. Okada gives her not only a lifelong and strangely erotic attachment to donuts, but a junai foundation in an eternally unrealisable longing for a pure and innocent love.

Okada, as Obayashi later tells us, is also a “real” person though he has no real evidence that he and Sada ever crossed paths. He gives her the knife she will later use to sever her lover’s penis and tells her to use it to cut out his heart, which belongs to her. Okada, claiming that he will forever watch over her, introduces a secondary theme in that he is a sufferer of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, then thought incurable and “treated” only by exile. Sada loses her pure love and never knows why, but sadly chooses not take his advice to remember that she is an honest girl and refuse to be corrupted by her trauma. Now unable to marry and it remaining a virtual impossibility to enter any other kind of profession, Sada becomes a geisha, later giving that up for the more lucrative world of casual sex work.

Perhaps ironically, it’s through her life as a sex worker that Sada begins to find a degree of freedom amidst the impassioned atmosphere of increasing militarism. While the men are caught up in destructive games of martial glory, Sada is just trying to live her many lives and dreaming her dream of love. It’s that dream of love that brings her to Tatsuzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka), a married, poetic ladies’ man with whom she eventually retreats into an isolationist kingdom of two. Yet their intensely co-dependent relationship is never quite enough for her because it fails to marry her physical need with the emotional, and the figure of Okada, the innocent, romanticised white knight of her youth, lingers in her mind. Sada kills Tatsuzo not quite by accident, attempting to take ownership of something which can never be hers in her fiercely patriarchal world where her clients coldly chide her for not being “polite” enough and despite the earning potential of her profession, she remains dependent on men to escape it.

Sada’s “crime” might not quite be revenge for all she’s suffered but it is a pointed act of rebellion towards a conformist society. She laments that her notoriety soon faded, that if being forgotten is like dying then she died long ago, but for a short time all of Japan was captivated not by the outrageous horror of her transgression but by an idea of “romance” that stood behind it as if Sada had moved beyond double suicide into new territories of eternal love through seeking to possess her lover even in death. The narrator, Sada’s sometime pimp, tells us that few remember Sada now and suggests that Japan is once again in a dark age, stopping only to remark that people were beautiful then too despite or perhaps because of the darkness. Fittingly the figure of the “real” Sada retreats and we’re left again with her legend, an imagined future for a woman who faded into pre-war tragedy as a symbol of its dangerous intensity. Even so, Obayashi is intent to show us that there was indeed a woman named Sada Abe who found herself at the mercy of her times but tried to live all the same, dreaming of impossible love in a world of corruption.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Kazuki Omori, 1996)

night train to the stars posterKenji Miyazawa is one of the giants of modern Japanese literature. Studied in schools and beloved by children everywhere, Night on the Galactic Railroad has become a cultural touchstone but Miyazawa died from pneumonia at 37 years of age long before his work was widely appreciated. Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Waga Kokoro no Ginga Tetsudo: Miyazawa Kenji no Monogatari), commissioned to mark the centenary of Miyazawa’s birth, attempts to tell his story, set as it is against the backdrop of rising militarism.

An aimless if idealistic young man, Miyazawa (Naoto Ogata) is at once fiercely religious and interested in mildly left-wing, agrarian politics. Together with a close friend, Kanai, he dreams of building a village utopia in which a community of farmers works the land enjoying peace and prosperity free of the oppression of landlords. The eldest son of a money lender, Miyazawa does not approve of his father’s profession and attempts to show him up by interfering in his business but only succeeds in showing his own naivety and though he has an especially close relationship with his older sister Toshi (Maki Mizuno), Miyazawa longs for pastures new but never manages to stick at anything for very long. After failing to join a religious sect in Tokyo, he returns home to start an agrarian school which will teach ordinary famers’ sons the joys of the arts.

Miyazawa had seemingly always been a strange, ethereal presence – a drunken guest at his family home mocks the way he used to wander around town robotically banging his toy drum as a child, and it’s clear he doesn’t fit within any of the environments he attempts to carve out for himself save the solitary cabin where he later begins his personal agrarian experiment. As the eldest son of the family it would be expected that Miyazawa take over the family business but there just isn’t any way he could. Second son Seiroku (Ryuji Harada) later adopts the familial responsibilities, even if remaining committed to his brother’s legacy by collating and publishing his work following Miyazawa’s death.

Miyazawa’s strangeness extends to his diet – he’s a strict vegetarian thanks to his attachment to Nichizen Buddhism. Intense religiosity remains a central part of Miyazawa’s life but it’s often one that’s hard to integrate with his other relationships. Not content with leading by example, Miyazawa is continually trying to convert his reluctant friends and family to his own beliefs, refusing to take their polite refusals seriously. Though his father simply ignores Miyazawa’s pleas and accepts them as a part of his strangeness, other friends are not so tolerant. One even eventually decides to sever the friendship entirely, giving the young Miyazawa a painful station platform lecture on the true nature of friendship. Berating him for the fact his letters are essentially all about himself and his religious claptrap, his friend reminds him that true friendship is accepting someone for what they are, implying that he’s not a trophy to be won for the cause of Nichizen Buddhism and has his own beliefs and causes which are just as valid as Miyazawa’s.

Yet even if sometimes misguided, Miyazawa’s intensions are altruistic. His is a love of the world, of dreams, and nature and people too though something in him has never quite felt at home in conventional society. Miyazawa’s writing is more an artistic pursuit than an attempt at a literary occupation – his first published volume sold so badly he felt guilty enough to get himself in debt buying all his own books so that the publishing company wouldn’t be out of pocket after supporting him. The son of wealthy family, Miyazawa could perhaps afford to indulge his eccentric ideas but the same is not true for all as he finds out when visiting the home of a pupil who is considering giving up his studies because of an alcoholic parent. Miyazawa offers to pay his tuition for him, but the boy turns him down, studying is a frivolous affectation that he can no longer afford.

Though he talks of romance, Miyazawa prefers the one of the mind to the one of the heart. A young woman falls in love with his writings and, she thinks, with him though Miyazawa explains that her feelings are too big for him to process – just as one cannot eat all the clouds in the sky, he cannot accept the weight of her emotion. Knowing that his health is failing, Miyazawa chooses a fantasy, idealised love over a physical one he fears he will abandon, cleaving to the beauty of the landscape rather than those who people it.

On his deathbed Miyazawa asks his family to throw his notebooks away – he only kept them to try and figure things out but he feels as if he knows all he needs to know by now. Miyazawa’s constant search, as it was for the characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad, was for “true happiness” – perhaps he found it, perhaps not, but thankfully his work lived on thanks to his brother who later took up his interest in agricultural reforms. A typical prestige picture of the time, Night Train to the Stars is a straightforward biopic but one which also bears out Miyazawa’s dreamlike world view with all of its strangeness and wonder.


 

Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Takashi Miike, 1995)

shinjuku-triad-societyThese days Takashi Miike is known as something of an enfant terrible whose rate of production is almost impossible to keep up with and regularly defies classification. Pressed to offer some kind of explanation to the uninitiated, most will point to the unsettling horror of Audition or the audacity of the controversial Ichi the Killer whilst looking askance at the totally unexpected craziness of Yatterman or the child friendly Ninja Kids!!!. Before he was the gleefully unpredictable festival favourite, Miike, like many of his contemporaries, had made a name for himself in V-cinema, often with violent tales of modern day yakuza. Shinjuku Triad Society (新宿黒社会 チャイナ・マフィア戦争, Shinjuku Kuroshakai: China Mafia Senso) was Miike’s first venture into the mainstream theatrical world but retains his V-cinema focus with additional intent.

Set in the shady, sleazy, noir-tinted world of ‘90s Shinjuku, Shinjuku Triad Society opens with a voice-over from one of its central players telling us that this is a love story – sickening and sweet, as real love is. The action kicks off with this same character, a rent boy, Zhou, attempting to evade a police raid, slitting the throat of a regular street cop on his way out. Zhou is the lover of an unpredictable member of the Taiwanese mafia, Wang (Tomorowo Taguchi), who is creating several problems in the underground crime world both within Triad circles and with the local yakuza. Half Chinese policeman, Tatsuhito Kiriya (Kippei Shina), has been landed with the case but things begin to get personal when he discovers that his younger brother, Yoshihito, has been hired as a junior lawyer working directly for Wang’s gang.

Yakuza films often have a very strong homosocial atmosphere, emphasising the fraternal bonds between men but Shinjuku Triad Society is especially notable for its inclusion of explicit male homosexuality within the gangster underworld. If yakuza films are family dramas with funerals instead of weddings, Miike uses this intense male bonding as a comment on the wider nature of the family with an added focus on the place of the foreign in Japanese society. Wang and Tatsuhito are not so far removed in their desire to rebuild their own family unit, partly as a kind of protective measure against the world around them in which their Chinese heritage becomes a perpetual barrier. Wang has done this as the head of his own clan and with his lover Zhou at his side whereas Tatsuhito is intent on restoring his birth family by “rescuing” his brother from the clutches of the “Dragon’s Claw”.

Tatsuhito’s brother is, of course, a grown man who has the right to become a member of the underworld family, rejecting the blood ties to his policeman brother and doting parents if that is what he wants no matter what his brother might feel about it. Tatsuhito is disturbed to discover that Yoshihito has become Wang’s lover, even if he claims to be using him in order to progress his career. Both brothers threaten each other at gun point with Yoshihito exclaiming “if you don’t like the way I am, just kill me” which Tatsuhito refuses to do though it remains unclear if his brother’s sexuality is objectionable to him or merely a facet of his rejection of the values Tatsuhito holds dear.

Sexuality becomes a weapon as Zhou manoeuvres and manipulates through provoking and satisfying sexual desire. These are, however, consensual relationships even if a part of a wider, transactional game whereas anal rape is actively being employed as a police interrogation tactic (with a somewhat surprising spin). Even Tatsuhito, whose partner mocks him for a supposed dedication to being a “regular” cop, unwilling to take bribes or give in to corruption, himself engages in this behaviour anally raping a female prostitute from whom he wishes to extract information. Playing into the film’s darker themes of the interplay between sex, violence, and transaction, the prostitute instantly falls in love with him. Tatsuhito is clearly no saint even at the film’s beginning, but even so he continues to fall still further, seemingly outraged on discovering the true purpose of Wang’s “philanthropy” in his Taiwanese homeland, but doing relatively little about it other than adding it to the growing list of reasons why Wang must die. Eventually crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker in the most taboo of ways, Tatsuhito finds himself rewarded even if his boss seems to be aware and in approval of what he’s done.

Tatsuhito may succeed in some of his aims, even if he has to exile himself from the family he was trying repair in the process though the closing voice over makes clear that he gains little in the long run and becomes nothing more than marginalia in the long, sad history of Shinjuku’s violent backstreets. Starting as he means to go on, Miike is entirely unafraid to step into some very uncomfortable areas, not least the way non-Japanese and those with partial Japanese heritage are regarded in the society of the time as well as the way these attitudes are filtered through recent Japanese history. Tatsuhito finds himself conflicted, choosing Japan in choosing the police but finding that it often fails to recognise him as its own son, whereas Yoshihito, in a sense, chooses China in associating himself with the Taiwanese gangsters. This central opposition of order and criminality is itself uncomfortable, but then undermined by the unorthodox nature of the local yakuza. Often strange and eerie, Shinjuku Triad Society takes place in a noirish world where there is no guiding morality – one to which Miike would often return though perhaps never with so much biting irony, where the absence of hope continues to imply its possibility.


Original trailer (English subtitles)