One of the most notorious films in the history of cinema—its explicit, unsimulated depiction of sex hides a troubling exploration of social alienation.
Cast: Tatsuya Fuji, Eiko Matsuda, Aoi Nakajima
Plot: A passionate telling of the story of Sada Abe, a woman whose affair with her master led to a sexual obsession.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
Source Argos Films
Subject Matter: Mature – Sexual Obsession
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 12 Dec 2015
What a way to be introduced to Nagisa Oshima… like Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), In the Realm of the Senses is one of those notorious films that I have been eternally curious about, but finally got to see and get it out of the way.
Made during the same period that saw such sexually provocative films like Peckingpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) making the headlines, Oshima’s work took things one level deeper (if you would excuse the language) by centering on the act of sex as the mode of cinematic address.
The two leads Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda engage in unstimulated sex in front of the camera, from basic penetration to increasingly sadomasochistic acts like strangling while copulating.
Such explicitness hits the viewer from the onset, and quite quickly (and unthinkably), one becomes accustomed to the ‘pornography’, or what protestors against the film would claim as such.
Yet, as advocates would counter, it is an explicit film but it is not a taboo one. According to Oshima, what is unseen remains taboo. And his film, through the self-intellectualizing that the artistic process gives, transcends the moral quandary into something akin to making a sociopolitical statement.
“You want to make love all the time, huh?”
Whether it is satisfying or illuminating in this regard is a matter of debate – but at least Oshima, through sex, makes us think not about sex. Well, at least not all the time.
Based on a true story that occurred prewar in the 1930s, In the Realm of the Senses gives us a couple (one a married man, the other a servant) whose insatiable desire for sex drives them to a point of no return. Particularly, Sada (Matsuda) demands for near-constant pleasure, while Kichizo (Fuji) accepts whatever that comes his way.
Socially alienated, Kichizo finds peculiar pleasure in a woman’s obsession over his penis. They are in a world of their own, a safe haven from the perils of Japanese militarism and societal taboos, although Oshima’s exploration of these matters come across as slight.
But shot with a formal, understated elegance, In the Realm of the Senses is a beautiful Japanese film, full of rich visual flavour with strong attention to art direction and costuming. The explicitness feels startling in contrast – it is difficult to reconcile the cultural with the sexual.
Yet, Oshima’s bold work continues to push boundaries and is one of the few arthouse ‘porn’ films in the medium’s history to be recognized (and maybe celebrated?) as an art film. Whether it is a good or bad picture is beside the point; I think the point of the film is that it got made… forty years ago.