Shohei Imamura’s snowy black comedy, Akai satsui, revolves around Sadako, the uneducated common-law wife of Riichi, who hasn’t married her because of her inferior status; Sadako had been housemaid to Riichi’s family. Masaru, the couple’s kindergarten-age son, was registered to his paternal grandparents for the same reason. (Sadako’s persistence officially corrects this.) Riichi, a university librarian with a long-term mistress, repeatedly addresses Sadako as “stupid,” and indeed she isn’t adept at following orders. But this may reflect resistance to being unfairly ordered about or the partial internalization of put-downs Riichi and his mother, Tadae, routinely inflict. Note that Sadako is finally adept at using the knitting machine which initially seems beyond her capacity to master.
When Sadako is alone in Riichi’s shack near commuter train tracks, a thief breaks in; dying of heart disease, Hiraoko needs money for medicine. He rapes Sadako, whose ambivalence is ignited by this departure from Riichi’s condescending uses of her. (Hiraoko leaves money, making a joke of Tadae’s later remark, “Being a woman doesn’t pay.”) Sadako’s “intentions of murder” are “honorably” aimed at herself; but her attempt at hanging herself only drops her to the floor. Hiraoko’s bothersome obsession shifts Sadako’s murderous intentions to him.
Caged white mice dominate the foreground of shots; one, hungry, Masaru muses without affect, eats the other. Sadako also testifies to this survival instinct, which Japanese society and its moral injunctions paper over. In another stunning shot, Hiraoko threatens to burn Sadako with a steam iron. We simultaneously see Sadako and her reflection in the iron’s mirrorlike underside: an image of passivity against which she will henceforth react.
A startling dream sequence throws into question the objective reality of much else. Both Riichi, who often wears a pollution mask, and Hiraoko have labored breath.
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