In The Realm Of The Senses (Ai no korîda)
Japan (1976) Dir. Nagisa Ôshima
This notorious sexually explicit Japanese film has courted controversy for practically all of its near forty year existence, and for good reason, even in the wake of modern films pushing boundaries between mainstream sex and flat-out pornography which seem tame in comparison. But does it still shock as it did back then?
Actually it does even though we should really be desensitised to such material since the lax in censorship laws in recent years. Much of this effect comes from the time this film was made (1976) and the fact it was made by a nation noted for their good mannered – if slightly eccentric – people, the Japanese.
If In The Realm Of The Senses opened the eyes of the world to the seedier side of Japan then the fact the story behind it is based on a true story would also see jaws hit the floor. Set in 1936 the central character is Sada Abe (played here by a debuting Eiko Matsuda) a former prostitute who works in a hotel owned by the married Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji). One day Ishida notices Sada and gropes her, a rather surprising but intense sexual spark instantly forming between them.
An affair quickly begins based solely on their sexual adventures but Sada starts to get extremely jealous of Ishida sleeping with other women, despite Sada going back on the game to support their life away from the hotel. The relationship ends following a sex act gone wrong and gruesome reaction act by Sada which made national headlines when she was arrested a few days later. And again, this is all true!
It’s not explored in the film but the real Sada Abe was a troubled soul, with a rather sordid and tragic history that would make for an interesting story in its own right but Nagisa Ôshima chose to focus on Abe’s last few months. According to Ôshima it wasn’t just about making a film concerning two controversial sexually free lovers, it was the idea of using the film to politicise Japan’s stuffy public attitudes towards sex while the rest of the world was relaxing theirs.
Because of the strict Japanese censorship laws towards public depictions of nudity and genitalia (even their pornography to this day is subject to pixellation and blurring of body parts) Ôshima knew he could never get the film released uncut in Japan so it was made with French cooperation and the footage was edited there. Even so the film caused a huge stir at the time for its unsimulated sex scenes – the first ever in a non-pornographic film – and was subject to bans and severe cuts on a global scale.
Over the years Ôshima fought may battles to have his film screened uncut (it was banned in Japan before being later released albeit heavily censored) which has only born fruit in the past few years. In many ways it is remarkable that it can be seen completely cut free – especially in the UK where porn is still subject to legal ramifications – which is either a triumph for art or a triumph for porn. And this raises an interesting question – is this film art porn, porn art, just art or just porn? At the risk of being too ambivalent it is all of the above but I am sure the debate a still rages on among scholars, film buffs and disgruntled moralists the world over.
The sex is not just graphic it is very taboo breaking in every aspect; scenes involving the explicit insertion (and subsequent laying of) an egg and a china ornament to defile a rookie geisha are unlikely to be justified by many as necessary or congruent as much as they will have some audience members reaching for the rewind/pause button! The sexual interactions between Sada and Ishida however tell the tale of the developments of their erotic relationship, the intensity and growing adventures in experimentation serving as a barometer (literally and figuratively) for their increasing desires for each other.
This remarkable story could have been told without the genuinely performed sex acts for sure, but it would have been missing something. With the characters not following a traditional path of growth or development this is how we get to know them and follow the journey that sees them bonking every which way but loose, with other people, in front of other people and other raunchy scenarios. By the end we become acclimatised to this uncensored action and we accept, with Ôshima managing to throw something new in to shock us again.
We have to talk about the central performances. Tatsuya Fuji was a minor actor who enjoyed some fame in the wake of this role and was probably the luckiest actor on earth in 1976. He may not come across as the most likeable lead but Fuji makes Ishida’s passion and connection with Sada feel genuine and committed.
Committed is how we can accurately describe newbie Eiko Matsuda, who literally gives her all for this role and delivers one of the most remarkably convincing, engaging and under appreciated performances in cinema history. Even without the sex Matsuda has us hooked as the insatiable woman on a slow mental decline as her through both her sensuous and vibrant body language and sure acting chops. Sadly for Matsuda her career never took off as she was only offered porn roles and after a few more years disappeared to Europe. A shame as she could have been a superb dramatic actress.
This restored, remastered and uncut blu-ray of In The Realm Of The Senses reveals a film of exquisite visual beauty in both the aesthetic of 1930’s Japan and the intimate eroticism of the central relationship. The fact the film is still debated – for better or worse – to this day speaks volumes about its power to shock or polarise opinion. Whatever side you are on, this is quite an extraordinary experience indeed.
Good or bad you won’t forget it.