|Sada Abe and the police.|
On the eighteenth of May, 1936, a prostitute named Sada Abe asphyxiated her lover to death in a Shibuya inn, then cut off his genitals, which she put in her purse and carried around with her for several days until her arrest. When the details of the murder came to light, she became a folk hero in Japan. Wherefore the murder and castration? And why did the public respond so favorably to it, if we can phrase it like that?
Sada Abe had been in the midst of an intense affair with married restaurateur Kichizo Ishida. They became consumed with each other and increasingly sought to shut out the outside world. And there was a lot happening in the outside world at the time. Just three months earlier, ultra-nationalist army officers had staged a failed uprising in central Tokyo: this is the so-called February 26th incident. The subsequent crackdown from the establishment led to an entrenchment of military rule and an expansion of the pervasive militarism that had come to the fore in Japanese cultural and political life. The Japanese army was deeply enmeshed in Manchuria and was poised to invade the rest of China in the following year. Rather than give themselves up to the prevailing patriotic fervor of the time, Abe and Ishida withdrew into their own world of increasingly frenzied sexual pleasures. Theirs was an arguably virtuous selfishness; I would much rather see two people fuck each other to death by mutual consent than kill others through selfless, patriotic violence.
Abe and Ishida eventually got into erotic asphyxiation—which never ends well—and one day Ishida gave her his tacit consent to kill him (in the movies about Sada Abe—which we’ll get to in a moment—it’s presented as something like, “I know you’re going to strangle me in my sleep, so if you do, don’t stop halfway.”) And so, abiding by what she thought were his wishes, she strangled him to death.
Now, there have been several films made about the “Sada Abe incident,” the most famous of which is Nagisa Oshima’s super-explicit 1975 masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses. As the Japanese censors ban the depiction of human genitalia in movies, Oshima was forced to edit the film—which is as graphic as the most hardcore pornography—in France, and an unexpurgated version of the film has never been released in Japan. Oshima, a committed member of the far left and a champion of those on the margins of Japanese society—criminals, prostitutes, Koreans, non-conformists—saw Abe’s passionate romance and its violent denouement as a revolutionary rejection of Japanese imperial culture. He recognized the potential for political subversion in transgressive sex.
|Pretty much the only SFW still-frame to be found from In the Realm of the Senses.|
For instance, the latter’s Sada has an especial fondness for mini-doughnuts which she often has on hand throughout the film; there’s a delightful scene where Ishida, bearing a strategically concealed erection—must pacify the censors—suggests that they play “ring-toss” with the doughnuts. It’s not the sort of thing one would encounter in Oshima’s film, but even though it’s far less graphic than anything you’d find in In the Realm of the Senses, it presents a more earthy and true-to-life take on sex that is in its way just as vivid.