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In the Realm of the Senses

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Art House
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Nagisa Ôshima
Eiko Matsuda
Tatsuya Fuji
Aoi Nakajima
Yasuko Matsui
Kyôji Kokon
Bottom Line: 
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The 1970s saw a political and cultural revolution occurring in attitudes towards the depiction of sex and violence on the cinema screen. Much of the ground-breaking work of that era can be read as a belated response to (and the product of) a continuing trend in western society, which had first started to emerge during the previous decade, toward an increasing liberalisation of social attitudes, particularly among the young where it took the form of the ‘free love’ ethos of the hippie movement. Meanwhile, film censors and classifiers now found themselves confronted, in quick succession, by a seemingly endless parade of challenging boundary-pushing works from big name directors, such as “Straw Dogs”, “A Clockwork Orange” and “Last Tango in Paris”; by 1972 pornographic films such as “Deep Throat” were even getting mainstream attention, the middle years of the decade seeing a mini boom for soft porn titles -- such as “Emmanuelle” -- which were marketed and consumed as a chic, more sophisticated form of continental smut than the usual ‘behind the counter’ fare of the seedy adult emporiums. A small cadre of politically motivated left wing filmmakers from around the world even began to see sex as a weapon to be used as a deliberate ploy in the battle against a restrictive, oppressive bourgeois society.

Out of this confusing potpourri of the prurient and the avant-garde, where the rather reactionary free licence inherent to the commercial sex industry, and to exploitation cinema in general, met a heady taboo-smashing depiction of explicit sex as part of the agenda of a radical left wing paradigm, there emerged one international film that seemed to delight in confusing the boundaries that lie between the conventional and the unacceptable: the film was Nagisa Ôshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses”.

By 1975, forty-three-year-old leftist Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Ôshima was semi-retired from the Japanese film industry and had not made a picture since 1971, when he was suddenly tempted back into the fray by an offer from French producer Anatole Dauman to make a ‘genre’ picture without any studio interference -- the genre in question being the pornographic film! Dauman had been a key figure in the promotion of the French Nouvelle Vague movement during the sixties and latterly had been instrumental in the emergence of the niche erotic arthouse sub-genre --  a type of movie perhaps best represented by the work of Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, whose controversial “La bête” (“The Beast”) was produced by Dauman in 1975.

Ôshima had previously been known as a radical filmmaker with leftist leanings, whose diverse body of films, made in the 1960s, had dealt with contemporary issues and were often intended as a response to the rise of the far right and to Japan’s ever closer ties with the US, which was now drawing the country into involvement with the Vietnam War through association. Shot in Kyoto, Japan but processed at the LTC labs in Paris in order to evade his home country’s strictly codified censorship policies with regard to the depiction of sex, “In the Realm of the Senses” became as controversial as any film of the 1970s, thanks to its inclusion of real hard-core sex sequences in which the actors are seen performing numerous acts of penetrative sex and fellatio, often in unsparing close ups. Frequently banned around the world for many years, and still unavailable in an uncensored form in Japan, the film had a complicated and chequered history on video in the UK and has been the subject of much debate and brow-furrowing at the BBFC down the years. Although denied certification for a long time, the film did play in private members cinema clubs, albeit minus a brief scene in which a female character tugs the penis of a small boy, which was deemed libel to breach the Protection of Children Act. This edited version was released on video without certification in the early eighties but then fell foul of the Video Recordings Act of 1984 (which was the point when the whole ‘video nasty’ scare took off) and was pulled from the shelves. Subsequent releases of the film on UK video and DVD have optically reframed the offending scene with the boy in order to remove the act from visibility, but now, with Studiocanal’s new double-play release, which brings the film to Blu-ray for the first time, the entire work has been released completely uncut and uncensored for the first time in the UK after being resubmitted earlier in 2011, at which point it was deemed no longer likely to be viewed as obscene, since the act does not occur in a sexual context. Meanwhile, although the film was never released uncensored in his native  Japan, the publication of a lavish book of the script, including many explicit stills taken on the set, resulted in Nagisa Ôshima being prosecuted for obscenity in a case which rumbled on for six years before the director was finally acquitted.

The film is based on the real-life case of Sada Abe -- a chambermaid  who, in 1936, was tried and convicted in Japan for asphyxiating her lover Kichizo Ishida during sex, and was later found walking around with his severed penis and testicles stuffed into her handbag. The incident was a cause célèbre and Abe became almost a mythical, folkloric figure in Japan as the decades passed: four films had already been made about her life by the time Ôshima finally came to tell the story in this French produciton. The director’s use of such a well-known tale was to prove vastly different from most other Japanese treatments of it though, all of which conformed to the codes established by the Japanese ‘Pink’ film industry.  Nagisa Ôshima’s take on already familiar, traditional subject matter subverts the usual practices of this genre of Japanese sex film which was usually aimed exclusively at a male audience, with its early films viewable as the equivalent of the West’s then-contemporary ‘nudie-cuties’ or ‘roughies’.

Pink films always conformed to the elaborate, unyielding strictures placed on Japanese cinema, which prohibited the display of pubic hair and the sexual organs. This lead to the meticulous and obsessively precise placement of on-screen objects to hide the pubic region on film, and to various methods of ‘fogging’ and of scratching out the enamel of the film being employed, in order to always ensure the removal of the taboo image from view. This peek-a-boo approach became an increasingly elaborate, teasing game over the years and the practice itself gradually came to be viewed as a kind of sexualised’ turn-on’ for the viewing audiences. The first wave of the genre in the sixties consisted mainly of independently produced films and often mixed extreme violence, sex and political messages. But as audiences fell away from cinema with TV becoming more and more of a draw, the genre was taken over by the big Japanese film studios who began producing their own glossy, mainstream form of Pink sex film (the only genre that still commanded an audience by this point), known as Nikkatsu Roman Porno films -- Nikkatsu being Japan’s oldest, most respected major film studio.

 It is against this backdrop that Ôshima’s  “In the Realm of the Senses” attempts to subvert, shock, and twist the entire order of the Pink genre – which was by now a comfortable, accepted mainstream form of entertainment in Japan. In Ôshima’s film, the sexual organs of the participants are always on display completely un-fogged and the sexual acts depicted are performed for real in a matter-of-fact, almost languid way that, strangely, eschews any erotic build-up to the scenes. Ironically, for many Japanese audiences, this explicitness actually removes a major erotic component of the film completely and its raw anatomical frankness becomes merely a shocking break with the accepted tradition, and thus an anti-establishment act in the mind of the director. The film’s emphasis is in the depiction of an all-consuming sexual relationship in which mutual love and obsession transfigure the sexual acts depicted in such a way that they aren’t so much erotic stimulants for a male viewership as sacraments of total feminine devotion. The smashing of taboos is accompanied by an ornate, highly stylised but classical cinematic form which arranges painterly shots in narrative chronological order, with Hideo Ito’s lush Eastmancolor cinematography and production designer Shigemasa Toda’s attractively decorated studio sets resulting in a colourful but claustrophobic artificial environment which almost gives the film the feel of a set-bound Hammer Production from the 1960s with studio-built exterior shots providing a stylised aesthetic that gives the film an unexpectedly fairy tale ambience to contrast against the blunt pornographic imagery: the aim seemingly being to fashion a film recreation of the style of an classic Edo period Japanese erotic print, and the film largely succeeds in creating an overpoweringly designed artistic backdrop for the taboo-busting acts of sexual experimentation the two protagonists indulge in throughout. The opening sequence takes place amid a studio-created snow storm which, as well as reminding you that Quentin Tarantino was almost certainly thinking of this film as well as “Lady Snowblood” when the Bride faces off against O-Ren in a snowstorm at night during the climax of “Kill Bill: Volume 1”, is an evocatively beautiful setting for the first act’s examination of the influence of gender power relations and class in the conduct of sexual courtship.   

Ôshima takes the character of Sada Abe and instead of running through the well-known tale in a way that makes her simply yet another object of the male gaze and of male-determined speculation, fashions her into the iconoclastic focus of a detailed examination of the repressions of Japanese women’s sexuality and society’s reaction to its untrammelled expression; while her devoted male lover becomes not a victim but a figure who rejects his country’s militaristic mores and codes of duty for a self-abnegating will to please his lover’s every desire, even if it results in his own destruction . From its earliest scenes, a complicated nexus of power relations, all of them portrayed in terms of sexual struggle, is relayed to the viewer, thus giving the film’s Japanese title, “Ai no Korīda” (Love’s Bullfight), an added piquancy. Abe is molested by a veteran female co-worker at the hotel she’s just started working at in the opening scene, and is shown the owner and his wife making love through a crack in the door of their room – a sight which visibly excites her. Women, either secretly or publicly, viewing the private sexual acts of other couples becomes a constantly recurring visual motif throughout the film, subverting the usual Pink film theme whereby male voyeurs are usually seen ogling nude women.

 In contrast to her own subjugation by her co-worker, Abe is in a position of power over the old tramp from Tokyo who is first seen slumped insensibly in the snow outside the hotel being sexually humiliated by a group of flag-waving children throwing snow at his withered genitals. It is revealed later that the vagrant is a former client of Abe’s from when she was a prostitute in Tokyo, now reduced to the absolute rock bottom of the pecking order when seen frantically trying to masturbate him-self while Abe reveals her sex to him as an aid out of sheer pity! But the submissive position of Japanese women in general is indicated in Abe’s first sexual encounter with her boss, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), who gropes her while she’s stooped over in the act of scrubbing clean the floor, proclaiming, ‘I like the sway of your hips’. Thereafter, Ishida uses his position of power over Abe to induce her to visit him in his private quarters, where he is often entertained by officious geishas who sing and wait on his every whim with fixed smiles.

Actress Eiko Matsuda was an unknown at the time, active in the Japanese radical theatre underground of the 1970s and cast because Ôshima felt her screen presence indicated a persona that female viewers would be able to relate to. She displays a sort of fragile, wounded bird radiance that soon reveals itself possessed of a steely core as her obsession and jealousy take hold. The relationship with Kichizo progresses from her first usurping the tea-bearing and musical/artistic roles of his geishas because she can’t bear the thought of other women in his presence, to her fantasising about the murder of Kichizo’s wife when Abe catches them making love. Abe forces her new lover to promise that he will never make love to his wife again; and to cement his devotion to fulfilling her insatiable needs he spirits her away secretly, to a countryside location where the two seal themselves up in their quarters and make love almost incessantly, refusing to eat (except when it is incorporated into the sex act), wash, clean or engage with the outside world at all apart from when they are visited by maids, elderly inn-keepers or geishas employed by Kichizo. Eventually, Abe is forced to return to prostitution in order to provide money to continue with this self-involved, obsessional lifestyle. But that involves her having to leave Kichizo, trusting him not to go with other women while she is away with a former regular school master client who can be relied on to pay well for sex.

Lead actor Tatsuya Fuji was already a respected performer at the time he was offered the role of Kichizo Ishida and was taking a big risk ostensibly moving into the realm of hard-core with this movie, but his career apparently continued without interruption after the release of the film, while his female co-star Matsuda was evidently not so lucky, eventually having to move to Paris in order to escape the scandal and opprobrium she encountered on the streets of Japan for her frank engagement with scenes of fellatio and penetrative sex. The film offers an ambivalent portrait of the relationship between the obsessive pair of sex-hungry lovers, on the one hand citing Ishida’s willingness to surrender his dominant status as a bourgeois male, developing instead a masochistic, childlike submissive role in the private sphere they’ve both created for themselves in a reaction against the militaristic, repressed disciple of Japanese society; on the other hand Abe comes across as increasingly deranged by desire, and the couple’s downward spiral into the practice of ever more perverse sex games which eventually end with Kichizo willingly offering his life in order to facilitate the ultimate orgasm in his lover while he is strangled to death at the same time, inevitably presents Abe somewhat in the role of a sexual vampire turned mad from an untrammelled desire severed from all social norms. In the process of documenting this strange journey into oblivion, Ôshima has various representatives of Japanese society at large commenting and sometimes taking part in the sex play -- from scandalised Inn keepers to old sex-starved geishas, to the young ingénue who is offered Kichizo and Abe’s sexual licence as an example by which she herself may be initiated into the adult world of sexual congress. Naturally, the film ends with the ultimate act of deranged devotion as Abe removes the dead Kichizo’s penis and scrotum after marking his abdomen in blood with the words: ‘Sada and Kichi, just two of us together’.    

This 2 disc ‘double play’ set which features a new HD transfer on Blu-ray and DVD is generally very pleasing. Although there is inconsistency in the quality of the texture of the image at times (some sequences look grainier than others), generally speaking it’s an extremely nice-looking presentation with deep, lush colours, vivid detail and solid black levels. Minoru Miki’s repetitively mournful score with traditional wind instruments also fares well on the mono audio track. The Blu-ray offers almost three hours'-worth of supplementary material which takes an extremely welcome look back at every aspect of the film’s production history, primarily in a 52 minute retrospective documentary written and narrated by David Thompson called “Once Upon a Time in the Realm of the Senses”. Here a succession of French film critics and director Catherine Breillat (whose films “Romance” and “Anatomy of Hell” followed Nagisa Ôshima’s example by combining arthouse values with on-screen explicitness) join production manager Koji Wakamatsu and assistant director Yoichi Sai, and actor Tasuya Fuji among many others, in recalling the circumstances of the shooting of the film as well as the social and political background informing the director’s approach to the subject matter. There is also a lot of footage from the actual production (with a long-haired bohemian-looking Nagisa Ôshima) and period interview footage with actress Eiko Matsuda, who had a sort of tragic air about her even then, and whose whereabouts today are apparently uncertain.

“Recalling The Film” is a documentary shot in 2003 in which consulting producer Hayao Shibata, line producer Koji Wakamatsu, assistant Director Yoichi Sai and distributor Yoko Asakura are extensively interviewed on the preparations that went into the production. This lasts for 38 minutes.                  

“Sex In Japanese Cinema: Panel discussion” was filmed at Birbeck College by kind permission of the Centre of Media, Culture and Creative Practice and features film historian Julian Ross moderating a sometimes stilted but generally rather fascinating talk with Jasper Sharp (author of ‘Behind the Pink Curtain: The complete history of Japanese sex cinema’) and film scholars Roland Domenig and Matiheu Capel in a wide-ranging discussion which covers the context in which the film was made and first seen by International audiences in some detail during the 57 minutes or so it lasts.

Finally, some deleted Scenes are included, none of which involve any extra sexual content and consist solely of extended versions of sequences already included in the film but which were shortened by the producers when the film was released internationally.

Studiocanal have produced perhaps the ultimate edition of a cult classic with this newly uncut release. It’s by no means an easy view and isn’t even particularly erotic, but there’s no doubt that Nagisa Ôshima produced an unforgettable, sometimes disturbing, but always visually stunning piece of work which still challenges our sense of the dividing line between art and exploitation like almost no other film before or since.


Check out more from Black Gloves at his new blog, Nothing But the Night!!

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