Rokuro Mochizuki was a leader of the Japanese New Wave of the 1990s, making films such as “Shin Kanashiki Hitman (Another Lonely Hitman)” and “Onibi (The Fire Within)” that redefined the yakuza genre. His tough guy heroes may have had a lonely nobility as they fought for their own vision of happiness, apart from the gang world, but they loved and killed as, not romanticized exemplars of mahco cool, but as sometimes twisted, often desperate, human beings.

Mochizuki, however, had a hard slog to escape the porno industry, where he had spent his formative creative years, and establish himself as a legitimate director.

In the current decade he has struggled with failed projects and misfires, including 2004’s “Kamachi,” a stiff bio-pic about poet and painter Kamachi Yamada who died aged 17 in 1977.

Johnen — Sada no Ai
Director Rokuro Mochizuki
Run Time 109 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (June 6, 2008)

His new film, “Johnen — Sada no Ai (Johnen — Sada’s Love)” is a followup of sorts, being about another real-life legend, Sada Abe, a prostitute-turned-waitress who in 1936 famously strangled her married lover to death after marathon love-making sessions and severed his genitalia for a keepsake. After her arrest, she claimed she did it out of love — and at his request. The nation was scandalized — and enthralled.

Four previous films have been made about Sada, the best-known abroad being Nagisa Oshima’s “Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses)” in 1976. Given its many hardcore scenes, “Ai no Corrida” could only be released in Japan with massive optical blurring, but even in its butchered form it was a masterpiece — an uncompromising, unblinking journey to the end of the erotic night.

“Johnen” takes another tack entirely, being a stylized sexual-fever dream influenced by the prewar ero-guro (eroticism and grotesquerie) aesthetic. The most famous literary practitioner of ero-guro, Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), mixed elements of the murder mystery, horror story and erotic tale, often with an S&M slant, in ways perverse, bizarre — and enduringly popular.

The biggest difference between “Johnen” and its predecessors is less Mochizuki’s take on the material — director Nobuhiko Obayashi went a similar ero-guro route in his 1998 film “Sada” — than its star, Aya Sugimoto. A former model-turned-dancer-turned-TV “sekushi tarento (sexy talent),” Sugimoto created a scandal of her own by starring in “Hana to Hebi (Flower and Snake)” in 2004 and “Hana to Hebi 2” in 2005. In these cult bondage pics by Takashi Ishii, Sugimoto dominated the screen as a hog-tied goddess — submitting to every indignity, but riveting eyes with her ripe beauty, unabashed sensuality, dancerly grace and sheer force of personality. She makes that other professional exhibitionist, Madonna, look like Mother Teresa.

Mochizuki also uses Sugimoto this way in “Johnen.” Playing Sada, she is a bold, defiant diva of the erotic, in command of every situation, be it on the futon or in the courtroom. The story, though, centers on Ishida (Kazuya Nakayama), a photographer who is taking racy (if disturbing) pics of a model by the seaside when he encounters an elderly blonde-haired gent, Omiya (Yuya Uchida), who invites him and his companion to dinner at his mansion. There, in a setting of decayed grandeur straight from a Rampo story, Ishida meets Omiya’s wife, the mysteriously alluring Sada (Sugimoto). He has the unsettling feeling he has been with her before — and not just across a table.

With Omiya’s permission, Ishida arranges for a photo shoot with Sada that leads to an affair of brain-melting intensity. This is the not the first time, though — Ishida and Sada were also lovers in another life. As his passion for Sada turns into a dangerous obsession, Ishida recalls the previous relationship — and how it ended.

This double story line — flashing back and forth between the lovers’ present and their prewar past — adds a mythological dimension to the film that Mochizuki plays up in high theatrical style, abandoning any pretense of realism. He presents Sada as the ultimate femme fatale — that is, a woman whose embrace is worth dying for (and dying for again). At the same time, he mocks those who criticize and condemn Sada, from the frenetic prosecutor to the phlegmatic judge at her trial, while getting a lubricious kick from her wicked deeds.

The film’s critique of a society in which Eros and Thanatos are grotesquely entwined — with Sada as an erotic idol for a generation about to self-sacrificially march off to their deaths — has a mannered, antique feel. It’s almost as though Mochizuki were making “Johnen” not for Toei Video, that purveyor of genre and exploitation pics, but Art Theater Guild, that famed producer of art films by Oshima and other auteurs of the 1960s New Wave.

But Sugimoto, whether enveloped in black lace or red silk — or nothing at all, burns the high-mindedness right out of the frame. Stuck in a time warp or not, Mochizuki still knows how to cast.

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