In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, sex exploded on screen. Simultaneously the art house and the grind house started stretching the boundaries of what could be shown. I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) whetted American appetites for eroticism via European imports. Deep Throat (1972) and Behind the Green Door (1972) brought porn to something like the mainstream. Satyricon (1969), Salò or 120 Days of Sodom (1975), and W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) played with extremes of irreverence and what society and government censor boards would permit.
Broadly, this increase in filmic sex mirrored the sexual revolution happening throughout western culture and the increasing permissiveness of these societies in general. The rise and fall of this phase of filmed erotica mirrored that of a revolutionary movement as it clashed with and then was absorbed into the mainstream.
Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) arrived at the end of this cycle and is unique for being one of the most visually audacious films in what it showed (numerous scenes showing non-simulated sex) but also less exploitative in the way this sex was depicted. The Criterion Collection has released a deluxe edition of the movie in standard DVD and BluRay formats. Now may be an excellent time to reappraise this period in film history, after the shock of seeing sex onscreen has long worn off and the politics of the period and its aftermath can put its artistic aims into clearer long-term context.
The story strictly revolves around the relationship between maid Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and her “master”, playboy Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji). Sada initially spies Kichizo making love to his wife Toku (Aoi Nakajima). He later seduces her, perhaps intrigued by her past dalliances as a prostitute, and they plummet into a love affair. They make love constantly, eventually retreating to an inn where they can spend all their time together.
Their world is totally defined by sensual pleasures and they become emaciated from lack of any other sustenance. In order to maintain an intense level of involvement they pursue kinkier acts including public sex, S&M, and sex with an elderly geisha. Eventually this leads to a game of choking. When Kichizo is no longer able to become aroused he lets Sada choke him to death saying, “Don’t worry about me only worry about enjoying yourself.” She then cuts off his penis.
Incredibly, In the Realm of the Senses is based on a true events that happened in Japan in 1936. The real Sada became something of a folk hero in her country and only served four years on a six-year sentence because of it. In a documentary that Criterion includes with this release, it is implied that Sada’s individuality appealed to the Japanese public at a time of militarized conformity. (It also points to a relationship between death and sex in Japanese culture that I, frankly, don’t understand and won’t attempt to interpret.)
In his film Oshima uses Sada’s story to explore the couple’s relationship as contrasted with Japanese society. At the beginning, groups of characters representing societal figures are frequently shown mocking individuals, such as an old drunk. Glimpses of rising sun Japanese flags place the events in the historical context of a war time Japan becoming increasingly brutal and homogenized. Later, the workers at the inn frequently chastise the couple for their lewd behavior, calling them perverts. As individuals these same workers frequently spy on them, out of jealously, fear, or arousal. In a crucial scene that makes this theme explicit (the only scene that isn’t about sex) Kichizo walks defiantly down a street past a group of marching soldiers.
Criterion includes an interview conducted with actor Tatsuya Fuji who says that Oshima had wanted to cut this scene but he insisted on its inclusion. Fuji interpreted it as the soldiers were marching to their collective destruction while Kichizo walks in the opposite direction, indifferent to them. Fuji does not say that Kichizo is also heading towards his destruction, even if he chooses it as an individual and is conscious of the consequences.
Kichizo and Sada enter their “realm of the senses” as an act of rebellion and self-exclusion from the outside world, but their private world of sex is as unsustainable as the society of war that they are rebelling against. This is the ultimate tragedy of the film and it spins the pared down story into myriad thematic complications of sex, politics, class, and gender.
In a print interview included with the Criterion booklet, Oshima says that his initial exposure to hardcore pornography happened during a trip to the United States in 1972. The producer Anatole Dauman and Oshima had discussed filming the Sada Abe story. And then, Oshima says, “It was in the summer of 1975, I think, that the French removed all restrictions on the production of pornography…if we called it a French film, we would have perfect freedom to show whatever we wanted. In that case, I thought, why not make something “hard-core”? …I could shoot the film in Japan and then have it developed and edited in France.”
As quoted in Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film Oshima once said, “I’m very self-indulgent. I like to do extreme things—the more enthusiastic I am, the more extreme my technique becomes.” His decision to have his actors actually engage in sex gave the film’s politics real-life resonance. Like Sada and Kichizo, the film as an entity experiments with what happens when one places oneself outside the accepted norms of a conformist society.
What happens is that society labeled the film as pornographic and against the laws of decency. The film was banned in many countries and still cannot be legally shown in its entirety in Japan. (There are additional real life resonances as well. The actress Matsuda was shunned for playing the part of Sada and has since lived the majority of her life in France.)
But while watching In the Realm of the Senses, one is struck by how far from pornography the film actually is. In an essay included with the booklet Richie analyzes how the movie is determined in its aesthetics not to be pornography. The camera angles are never intrusive. Oshima uses long takes that impassively observes the action from eyesight level. “We cannot objectify them because we have subjectively seen that our similarities make us identical.” It is clear that Oshima meant to provoke, but not titillate the audience.
The Criterion booklet includes a quote from Oshima saying that, “The concept of ‘obscenity’ is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look.” In some screenings of this film, the nudity was censored with black boxes and blurring. That act of obscuring makes the film obscene where the original is not.
Pornography is so widely available now that it is hardly provocative, but the issue of obscenity and the effects on whom and what we label as being forbidden is still a powerful issue in society because it has the power to alienate us from ourselves and each other. It’s the reason In the Realm of the Senses still has such remarkable resonance.
Oshima was primarily a political filmmaker and a film essayist in the style of Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Watkins. Political essayists don’t create a lot of warmth in the relationship with their audience and they tend to date themselves. It is perhaps because of this that Oshima’s films have not been discussed much outside academic criticism and have not been made available on DVD.
However, his work is starting to be revived. The New York Film Festival ran a retrospective of his work last year and the Cinematheque Ontario has curated a touring series of his films that just finished playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the Realm of the Senses is one of his more outré films, but given the salability of its sex (where legal), it has been the most available. Here’s hoping Criterion plans to release some of his other works, which on the whole are so calmly realized beneath their provocative surface that they contain a more timeless universality that deserves to be made widely available for discovery.