In the Realm of the Senses

Sada Abe played by Eiko Matsuda and Kichizo played by Tatsuya Fuji. Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection.

Now may be an excellent time to reappraise this period in film history, the shock of sex worn off, and its artistic aims put into clearer long-term context.

In the Realm of the Senses

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Cast: Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: R
First date: 1976
US DVD Release Date: 2009-04-28

See also The Empire of Passion

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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