IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976)
A passionate telling of the story of Sada Abe, a woman whose affair with her master led to an obsessive and ultimately destructive sexual relationship.
Nagisa Ōshima’s 20th feature set out to shock and provoke, and certainly succeeded. Its relentless succession of explicit, close-up sex scenes (and, perhaps, the suggestion said weren’t simulated) led to bans in several countries. In the Realm of the Senses / 愛のコリーダ couldn’t even be edited, or the footage processed, in Ōshima’s native Japan, and thus was nominally a French-Japanese co-production, with Anatole Dauman and his Argos Films company–both significant in the development of the French New Wave—providing the European component.
Thematically and spiritually, however, there’s little doubt In the Realm of the Senses is a Japanese movie, eventually evincing some concerns with broader, non-sexual ideas particular to Japan. (It may also be slightly better known by its Japanese name, Ai no korīda.)But mostly, while it does have all the things that other narrative feature films have—a story (albeit rudimentary), a cast (though only two performers are of any real significance), sets and locations, and a score—it’s sex, sex, sex.
In the Realm of the Senses was undoubtedly groundbreaking in that sense, though not uniquely. Pasolini’s equally notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom had come out the previous year, for example, and Noboru Tanaka—a director who, unlike Ōshima, was closely associated with the erotic movie known in Japan as “pink films”—had used the same story in A Woman Called Sada Abe (1975).
In any case, the result is a kind of inverted-porn movie where the audience starts to get excited at the prospect of the characters keeping their clothes on for more than a couple of minutes. “After the nuptial cups comes the bridal bed,” a woman says at a wedding scene, and your heart sinks.
Based on the true story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), although the real events took place over only a few days rather than the months implied in the movie, In the Realm of the Senses is set in 1936. This isn’t clear until the last moments of the film, which concludes with a brief voiceover, although there have been occasional clues earlier—like the uniforms of soldiers seen marching down a street. But most of the film seems detached from any particular time or place within Japan.
Equally, we learn little about the two main character’s backgrounds. Of course, this is intentional, with Ōshima determined to immerse his audience in the moment-to-moment of the relationship between Sada and Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), the male proprietor of the inn where she’s come to work. All we really know is that Sada was once a prostitute, with a husband in financial difficulties (“I only came here because I heard this was an upstanding house”, she says), and that Kichizo is married.
There are a few distractions before their relationship gets going, almost entirely involving sex. In the opening of the film, another of the inn’s young female employees forces herself on Sada, and shortly afterwards Sada has sex with a middle-aged derelict. Some kids have been throwing snowballs at him, and naturally enough—this being the film it is—his genitals have been the main target, confirmed by photography.
The bulk of the movie, though, is intently focused on Sada and Kichizo. There’s a kind of love between them, but on her part at least it becomes obsessive—she seems desperate and distraught when he leaves merely to get a haircut—and she’s very much the aggressive, dominant partner both sexually and emotionally
On the surface, perhaps, she conforms to a pornographic stereotype of the nymphomaniac (“I’d be reduced to a skeleton” by the ceaseless coupling if they moved in together, the more level-headed and less addicted Kichizo tells her). However, while In the Realm of the Senses certainly is porn of a kind, Ōshima isn’t putting her forward as a male-gaze fantasy of the insatiable woman there to please a man. The pleasure in this film seems to primarily be Sada’s, and when it inevitably progresses to S&M and real violence (presaged by much red and many knives) it’s no surprise at all that she’s the perpetrator.
In the Realm of the Senses is a film about people pushing the limits until they reach a point of extreme, even horrifying freedom, yet at the same time it’s an oppressive one. Sada and Kichizo are mostly seen indoors, and even the exteriors rarely have much sense of openness.
They are frequently not alone either, in that their incessant love-making is watched by third parties, but they make no real connections with these other characters. A plain approach to cinematography—most of the time, you’re barely aware of the camera at all—heightens this impression the world consists entirely of this couple, and specifically their bodies rather than their hearts or minds, while rather flat pacing similarly discourages us from noticing any plot mechanics.
There are things in Ōshima’s film to admire, if not exactly to like. The photography, while frequently self-effacing, is occasionally striking. And the colours, sometimes bright and sometimes subtler, are often gorgeous. The score, by Minoru Muki, is also occasionally effective—notably when Sada discovers her masochistic self while bedding a respectable older man, a school principal, for money. (His is one of the few lesser roles that almost constitutes a full-blown character.)
There is a rawness and intensity as well, belied by the film’s delicate manner. (Even when Sada and Kichizo are having rough sex, in no-holds-barred close-up, there’s something decorous about their movements, yet their relationship is far from gentle in its effects.) And at least once the film is over, and the period it’s set in is made evident, its relevance to the self-destructiveness of Japanese mid-century militarism as well as the culture’s fascination with sacrifice become clear. (Perhaps this would be more immediately obvious to Japanese viewers.)
It also has, of course, considerable curiosity value—as a product of a boundary-stretching time in cinema history, and even for western audiences in casting new light on the writer-director of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983). (Ōshima also continued after In the Realm of the Senses to explore some of this film’s ideas in 1978’s Empire of Passion, 1986’s Max, Mon Amour, and 1999’s Taboo.)
Unfortunately, while there’s no shortage of critics ready to hail In the Realm of the Senses as a masterpiece, and it is intriguing for being so daring and so unusual, that’s not quite enough to make it work as a film. Much of its aesthetic appeal exists only on the most superficial look-at-the-pretty-colours level. It can occasionally be unintentionally comic (for example, where Sada threatens to kill Kichizo and they end up in a detailed discussion of knives).
Most problematically of all, the sheer volume of physical explicitness—whether it’s consensual sex or not—becomes deadening. There’s a rape scene where you find yourself looking at the perfect balance of the characters’ outfits; there’s an apotheotic scene near the end which really ought to be gruesome and horrifying but manages to be little more than slightly queasy.
(In fact, everything that pro-censorship voices have said about repeated exposure dulling the impact of sex and violence is ironically borne out by In the Realm of the Senses, not that that means anything about movies beyond this very exceptional one.) Maybe you have to be Japanese, or a Japanophile, to appreciate it. But more likely, I think, the year has to be 1976 and you have to be someone who really wants to watch sex but also needs to convince themself that it’s art.
For the rest of us, the awkward truth is that while In the Realm of the Senses does have historical interest, novelty value, and a few moments of beauty, it’s rather boring. On Criterion’s new Blu-ray, the superb commentary is more compelling than the film itself.
FRANCE • JAPAN | 1976 | 102 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | COLOUR | JAPANESE
writer & director: Nagisa Ōshima.
starring: Eiko Matsuda & Tatsuya Fuji.