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Based upon the life story of the notorious prostitute Sada Abe, who in 1936 murdered and castrated her married lover for reasons that have perplexed the Japanese people ever since (let alone the filmmakers who have committed the tale to celluloid over the years), Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1997 film, Sada, is almost unclassifiable in its fever-dream approach to the material. Rich with character detail as much as it is resplendent with a love for visual style and theatrical artifice, Obayashi seems to be not only attempting to make the story of the infamous Sada Abe but trying to reconfigure and redefine Japanese cinema as well. That he only partly succeeds should not come as a surprise: the film is too long by about twenty-minutes and the mix of low-brow slapstick comedy and ironic melodrama never quite gels with the story's more tragic and solemn moments. But this type of cinematic blenderizing of disparate genre styles and emotional states is nothing new for Asian audiences, although it can be quite disorienting and baffling to Western eyes who expect a consistency of style and tone (i.e. naturalism) with their drama.

Nevertheless, Sada is frequently haunting, unforgettable, and yes, amusing in a way that Nagisa Oshima's turgid version of the story, In the Realm of the Senses, never comes close to being. (Sada Abe's tortured tale of love and death was also made into the film A Woman Called Sada Abe, directed by Noburu Tanaka for Nikkatsu studios.) The big difference between Oshima's over praised art-house shocker and Obayashi's film is primarily one of style, although there is also the issue of thematic focus to take into consideration. Oshima's hermetic interpretation of the story is mainly concerned with the fevered sexual obsession and power-plays that Sada and her lover acted out within the privacy of their ryokan room. Obayashi, on the other hand, relegates the last days of Sada's sexual delirium to a small part of the film, and instead treats her entire life as a story worthy telling.

With its hyper-stylization, frequently arch performances from the supporting cast, and its almost clinical reappraisal of Japanese cinema, Obayashi's film should easily be a pretentious mess. But somehow Sada maintains its cinematic equilibrium among all the pretty colors, due no doubt to the striking central performance of Hitomi Kuroki, who was recently seen in Hideo Nakata's horror film Dark Water. Kuroki manages to convey Sada's innocence, fragility, strength, and predatory ambition within the most delicate of facial expressions as she generates a fully-realized portrait of a larger-than-life enigma. Tsurutaro Kataoka likewise lends a quiet dignity to his role as Sada's lover, the respectable restaurant owner Tatsuzo Kikumoto, and beautifully realizes the character's volatile emotional and physical needs hidden behind his affable, ironic smile and almost whimsical demeanor.

But the real star of the film is director Obayashi himself. In his liner notes to the film, included with the DVD, writer Richard Kadrey aptly compares Obayashi to Baz Luhrmann, whose own frenetic visual style attempts to reconfigure the way we view popular cinema. Director Todd Haynes, who skillfully reworked the melodramatics of Douglas Sirk for modern audiences in his 2002 film Far from Heaven, would also be an appropriate comparison, though Haynes has far more patience with melodrama and a greater visual surety than Obayashi. Obayashi dutifully reenacts Sada's early years and her climb to the top of the prostitution ladder with the requisite melodrama and tragedy along the way, but his heart isn't anywhere near as dedicated as Haynes'. If it weren't for the over-abundance of visual trickery and the magnificent performances of its leads, much of Sada would simply be interminable to sit through.

Sada has been given a low-key yet marvelous release onto DVD from Home Vision Entertainment. The film's lysergic visual palette always looks stunning, and the frequent black & white sequences are likewise always crisp and sharp. Although listed by some sources (i.e. as being shot at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the film has been given a full-frame (1.33:1) presentation on disc, which looks fine and does not seem to compromise the picture. A theatrical trailer, director and actor filmographies, and liner notes are also included.

Sada is now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in a new digital transfer (aspect ratio 1.33:1). Special features: director and actor filmographies, original theatrical trailer, and liner notes by film critic Richard Kadrey. In Japanese with optional English subtitles. Suggested retail price: $19.95. For more information, check out the Home Vision Entertainment Web site.

Photos courtesy of Home Vision Entertainment.