At the time of its release, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses was probably the most sexually explicit film ever made for mainstream audiences—although it’s a serious drama filled with provocative psychological and sociopolitical concepts, Oshma’s movie features enough close-ups of genitalia and penetration for a porno flick. In fact, it’s impossible to discuss the film without addressing the question of whether Oshima’s hardcore scenes overwhelm his intellectual aspirations.
Based on events that took place in 1936 Japan, In the Realm of the Senses tells the story of real-life former prostitute Sada Abe. While working as a maid in restaurant, Abe became the mistress of the restaurant’s owner, a married man named Kichizo Ishida. They enjoyed sexual encounters at hotels and other locations, their rough play escalating to include erotic asphyxiation. Abe took one of these strangling adventures too far and killed her lover, then severed his genitals and kept them for souvenirs.
Writer-director Oshima tells this lurid saga in a linear fashion, using the real names of the people involved, and his camera lingers on every graphic detail, right up to the bloody climax—one of the most notorious moments in all of ’70s cinema. It’s important to note that from beginning to end, there’s no mistaking In the Realm of the Senses for anything but serious-minded artwork. Oshima uses colors, rhythms, and textures to evoke a contemplative mood, so even during the most brazen sex scenes, the focus is on observing behavior rather than generating erotic heat. Leading actors Eiko Matsuda (as Abe) and Tatsuya Fuji (as Ishida) give committed, persuasive performances, bringing the same level of naturalism to scenes inside and outside the bedroom.
Oshima creates a magical cocoon around the protagonists, all silk kimonos and sliding paper walls, so the characters seem insulated not only from prying eyes (except when they’re indulging in exhibitionism), but also from the crass mechanization of the modern world. The sociopolitical implications of the story are less obvious; Oshima introduces such concepts as gender inequality, ostracism, and subservience to create a framework in which dominance transfers back and forth between two lovers as their intimacy alters their societal roles. All of this is complicated by the implication that Abe is mentally unbalanced.
Yet even with the film’s laudable subtext, the surface of In the Realm of the Senses is suffused with images that call Oshima’s directorial taste into question. Was it really necessary, for instance, to include a close-up of Matsuda fellating Fuji until ejaculate gurgles out of her mouth? Was there no alternative to the scene of Fuji inserting an egg into Matsuda’s vagina and then forcing her to expunge the thing like she’s a hen? Obviously, sex is intrinsic to this tale, but Oshima plays the shock-value card so many times the movie ends up becoming monotonous. Plus, there’s a deeper question of whether this story was worth telling in the first place. Still, In the Realm of the Senses offers those with the fortitude to solider through the entire movie ample fodder for analysis (and argument).
In the Realm of the Senses: FREAKY