These profiles of the real-life Sada Abé and the actress who portrayed her in Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses first appeared in Donald Richie’s 1987 book Different People: Pictures of Some Japanese, and can also be found in the 2006 Japanese Portraits: Pictures of Different People. They appear here with the author’s permission.
After the war, released from prison, she got herself a job in Inari-cho, in downtown Tokyo: at the Hoshi-Kiku-Sui—the Star-Chrysanthemum-Water—a pub.
There, every night, workers of the neighborhood—for it was a taishu-sakaba, a workingman’s pub—would gather to drink sake and shochu and nibble grilled squid and pickled radish. And every night around ten, Sada Abé would make her entrance.
It was grand. She descended the staircase—itself a large affair that ended right in the middle of the customers. Always in bright kimono, one redolent of the time of her crime, early Showa, 1936, Sada Abé would appear at the head of the stairs, stop, survey the crowd below, and then slowly descend.
From where, no one ever knew. Some said that her lair was up there on the second floor, full of old photographs and overstuffed furniture. Others said that the staircase went nowhere at all, that she had to clamber up it from the back before she could arrive in public. In any event, the descent was dramatic, with many pauses as she stared at her guests below, turning a brief gaze on this one and that. And as she did so, progressing slowly, indignation was expressed.
It always appeared. It was part of the show, the entrance. Ostensibly, it was provoked by the actions of the men below. They invariably placed their hands over their privates. Fingers squeezed tight, they would then turn and snicker. Above, the descending Sada Abé would mime fury, casting burning glances at those below who squeezed and giggled the more. She slapped the banister in her wrath, and merriment rippled.
This pantomime was occasioned by the nature of Sada Abé’s crime. Twenty years before, she had cut off her lover’s penis. This was after he was dead, of course. And he was dead because the two had discovered that if she squeezed his neck hard enough his weary member achieved new life, but one day she squeezed too hard and killed him.
It was these events to which her customers now, two decades later, referred by hiding their own penises and snickering. And it was these that she also acknowledged by pretending wrath.
At the bottom of the stairs, she would stop and rake the room with her blazing gaze. There, in the growing hush, she would stand and glare.
The giggling stopped. Some of the men hunched lower, as though truly frightened. Perhaps they were, for this woman was a creature already legendary. She was a murderess. She had served a prison sentence. She had written a book about her exploits. And she might, they perhaps thought, be capable of doing the whole thing all over again.
Like a basilisk she stood. The last snicker died away. Silence, utter. Then, and only then, as though she had received the homage she desired, did Sada Abé smile. It was a cordial, welcoming smile, and it accompanied her as she went about pouring drinks and slapping backs.
Like many a pub woman, she became manly, just one of the boys. Unlike many, however, she had actually choked a man to death and then cut off his member. There was a consequent frisson when Sada Abé slapped your back.
—Hello there, you back again? You like this place here, eh? she asked, looking down at me and adding: Nothing but the best here, boys. Let’s all drink up now.
She then moved off to another table, glancing back at me from time to time. It was an interested glance. She seemed to be thinking about something, perhaps wondering if I too knew her story.
I did, and I also wondered about her and the turn her story had taken. To have unintentionally killed a lover in a moment of passion, to have rescued from the catastrophe, in a moment of panic, an object that one, childlike, had loved—that was one thing. It was quite another, however, to connive with the crowd, to present oneself as a figure of vulgar terror, and then as one of common fun.
She had certainly damaged the man initially, but now she seemed to wound him doubly. And she was mutilating herself as well, making a travesty of an event of such importance to her, one that had so shaped her life. She was, I felt, precisely faithless.
The laughter had now started up again. A few of the more daring yelled out that they were afraid to go and pee. Others shouted to hide the knives while she was around. She smiled, patted, poured, moving about in her striped Showa kimono like a teacher among unruly pupils.
Occasionally, however, the big smile faded. She seemed to be thinking. She stood there, sake bottle in one hand, abstracted. Of what, oh, of what was she thinking? I wondered, now half drunk myself. It could have been that night twenty years before, or it could have been present unpaid bills.
Whatever it was, she soon collected herself and went about among the tables grinning. Only for a time, however. Her nightly visits never lasted long. After an hour, she was suddenly no longer there. No one saw her go back upstairs, and no one in the drunken throng below missed her.
Perhaps she could no longer stand the travesty that her life had become. Or perhaps she had gone up to do the day’s accounts. •
—Oh, no, I really much prefer Europe, she said, dark in the summer heat, turning to watch the sun slide behind Saint Peter’s.
I did not have to guess why. Many Japanese find freedom abroad, but few had her reasons.
—It’s so interesting. And, of course, I have friends here.
Originally an actress in Shuji Terayama’s troupe, she was discovered by Nagisa Oshima and appeared in The Realm of the Senses, playing Sada Abé, strangling Tatsuya Fuji, cutting off his penis. Even though this scene, and many others, were missing when the film was shown in Japan, there was enough visible for newspapers and magazines to criticize.
It was shameless. It wasn’t the way for a true actress to behave. And—perhaps the main motivation for the criticism—she seemed to be doing it all for foreigners, since it was they alone who were permitted fully to view the act. And yet it was a purely Japanese story. It was about, no matter what she might have done, one of our own. Why then was this cheap so-called actress exhibiting our shame abroad?
Why was she behaving this way? was the question. The man was never criticized. He, Tatsuya Fuji, then a minor actor, found his career enormously assisted locally by the film. Thanks to it, he went on to be a star, to appear in cigarette commercials, and he never again had to appear nude.
Not so, however, in her case. She was a good actress, as she had proved, but no starring roles came her way. Only porno parts. She was also offered nude-dancer contracts. And more was suggested, amounts of money that would allow Japan to experience in the full flesh what had been denied it on the screen.
—Oh, no, that’s not the reason at all, she said, her skin brown in the failing light, Saint Peter’s black: I don’t care what the press writes. If I did, well, I wouldn’t last very long. No, really. I like Europe. I have this little place of my own in Paris now. And I do like coming to Rome.
She sat there in the twilight—black dress cut low in the back, necklace of ebony and amber, good black leather shoes, good black leather bag. And I knew what was under all this elegance. For I too had seen the film, and so her naked flesh was more real to me than the poised elegance now sitting beside me on a Roman balcony.
—It certainly wasn’t because of what they wrote. Actually, many women who’ve done less have had it worse. There were even some compliments—Nippon Sports called me brave. Did you know that? Well, they did.
She was very different from Sada Abé in the film. There, a housemaid, open, innocent, earthy, playing childlike games with the master. Now, black and elegant, chilled martini held between her lacquer-nailed fingers, turning to speak in French to someone else, turning back to me to answer an earlier question.
—Every day? Oh, I shop. I see films. Friends—go to cafés, things like that.
She was brittle, sitting on the edge of the chair as though she did not belong there, as though she had only lighted, birdlike, on her flight to somewhere else, as though she might break if touched—and yet she was the same woman I remembered as all muscles, juice, and open thighs.
Every lineament now stated a firm, polite request—do not touch me, her body said, each line an unmistakable refusal. She was as though immured in a sexless chic.
And the real Sada Abé, had she too done this to herself? After she left the Inari-cho pub, she disappeared. The Nikkatsu film company had made a soft-core porn film out of her story, and this had brought no complaints. Then Oshima had wanted to make his version and thought that he perhaps needed permission. She was discovered, after a long search apparently, in a Kansai nunnery—shorn, devout, and making no objections.
—It’s easy to make out that I’m some kind of martyr, run out of my own country, Eiko Matsuda said, smiling. But, believe me, it wasn’t like that at all.
One need not have one’s hair shorn to expiate; one could also have it newly coiffed. Her Paris dress was black as a nun’s habit. She had, in her own way, become Sada Abé, had paid something of the same price for doing so. There are various kinds of nunneries. •