Although usually referenced in context of the still existing art/porn debate in the history of filmmaking, Nagisa Ôshima’s film, instead of being a pornographic melodrama built on shock value, is a journey into culture and character in a self-destructive love story about emotional and sexual obsession set in pre-war Japan. MIGHT CONTAIN SPOILERS
‘In the Realm of the Senses’, Ôshima’s authentic Japanese ‘Last Tango in Paris’ introduces hotel owner Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) and one of his maids, former prostitute Sada Abe’s (Eiko Matsuda) affair. Although being married, Kichizo starts a secret, highly sexual relationship with the woman (who reasons her never-ending lust by oversensitivity) and the two start the journey exploring each other’s and their own sensations while getting isolated from society – ‘sinking deeper and deeper’ into sexuality (performing acts such as involving other people in their intercourses, or the man inserting food into his lover’s vagina before eating it), they become more and more dependant of each other. The dominant role of the man changes as Sada’s jealousy and emotional frustration results in hitting and struggling him during sex, which he is willing to suffer under. The woman’s passionate love seems to become destructive, and while the man’s death is foreshadowed by a servant who advises him to leave the woman and others call the two of them ‘perverts’, he finally dies from suffocation, asking the girl to ‘go all the way’. His voluntary masochism is the sacrifice he makes for love. The girl, obsessed with the man’s penis, castrates him after he has died.
One of the most controversial films in Japanese film history (next to Ôshima’s homosexual samurai film ‘Taboo’), ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ is a journey into emotions and desire which cannot be satisfied and love which knows no boundaries but death itself. Ôshima goes against conventional melodramatic plot structure by hardly showing anything else but different sexual encounters between the two characters. While mainly realistic, the film uses two dream sequences to support the understanding of the woman’s inner passion and confusion – one showing her punishing a small boy by pulling his penis (later edited in certain versions of the film due to the Protection of Children Act 1978), and one in the end of the film, after the man’s death, showing the couple and a little girl playing hide-and-seek in an empty stadium.
The pretentious label of ‘glorified porn’ roots on the director’s usage of unsimulated graphic sex. Experimenting with explicit material has either been successful (‘Intimacy’, 2001, or Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ and ‘Nymphomaniac‘, 2009 and 2013) or unsuccessful (‘Ken Park’, 2002, or ‘9 Songs’, 2004), and is ineffectively attempted to explore in the short film anthology ‘Destricted’ in 2006. In Ôshima’s narrative this explicitness is not only justified, but essential in order to understand the situation if its characters.
The film, set in 1936, briefly shows the Japanese growth of militarisation of the period (preceding the 1937 Japanese aggression against China) as Kichizo walks by a military parade, in the opposite direction. Isolated in their room with each other, the couple unconsciously escapes from ‘real life’ and the social, political situation of the period. Their love can be interpreted as their ignorance and denial of the outside world, an escape mechanism of repression. As our narrator informs us, Sada’s crime of murder later receives a ‘strange popularity’, as an act of rebellion. Ôshima will use a similar political undertone in his next film, ‘Empire of Passion’ (1978), where two lovers murder the woman’s husband but are later haunted by the dead man’s ghost and punished by police authority. In this context, ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ is not only a fascinating love story, but an effective political message too.