In the Realm of the Senses

Dir: Nagisa Ôshima, 1976. Starring: Tatsuya Fuji, Eiko Matsuda, Aoi Nakajima. Asian Cinema.
In the Realm of the Senses

"The concept of 'obscenity' is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, 'obscenity' disappears and there is a certain liberation. " --Nagisa Ôshima

The true story of Sada Abe has been interpreted into film several times, including Noboru Tanaka's film A Woman Called Sada Abe a year before this one, and Nobuhiko Obayashi's Sada in '98. Sada Abe was convicted in 1936 after killing her lover, Kichizo, while performing erotic asphyxiation. When arrested days later she was found calm, carrying his genitals in her handbag with a glowing smile on her face, claiming that she couldn’t take his body or head with her, so she decided to take the part of him that had the most vivid memories. In Oshima's interpretation of their story, which is still banned in its uncut form in Japan, the tale was given not only a fresh face, but a wholly realistic new perspective. In it, Sada (Eiko Matsuda) is, as in real life, an ex-prostitute who found work as a servant in the home of a seemingly upstanding couple. The master, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), becomes interested in her sexually and the two begin an affair. In attempts to avoid suspicion from his wife, she leaves their employ and the two set up shop at a nearby inn. There they are consumed by their unabashed lovemaking until Sada's nymphomania turns into a quest for sadomasochism. As their love inflames them, so do the dangers of its nature. Pain and punishment ultimately become the source of their newfound pleasure, and arguably, self-hatred.

Due, in part, to the film's radical political undertones and, more importantly, its real and explicit sex scenes, Oshima was brought to court after the screenplay's completion on the charge of "obscenity." There he chose to defend himself by educating his accusers on the difference between pornography and the exercise of trying to eliminate obscenity in an audience by exposing a subject (sex) that simply wasn’t talked about. The result was disastrous, and in Japan the movie is still obscured and cut to go around its excessive nudity, mainly on the part of the male character. In doing this, Oshima claims that Japan has taken something pure and turned it into something dirty. Those in London, Paris, and later America, agreed with him, and yet those in Japan have still not seen this important work of art the way it was intended.

With this film, Oshima wanted to make something that could not be considered pinku eiga (Pink Cinema), a Japanese soft-core porn category under which any film with male nudity or real sex would later fall. His claim is that pornography requires some level of involvement from the viewer, or is at least designed to stimulate a feeling of being with the actors sexually. His evidence was in the low-level shots used in these films, among other things. This is a movie that is asking us to observe two lovers go through their downfall, which requires empathy and sympathy—two things that are not derived from pornographic films, which lack realistic plots and any connection beyond that of eroticism. He won his trial but lost the right to show the film in his homeland, which is really a shame for both the director and those in Japan who have never seen it.

As a sort of period piece, this movie is outstanding based on costume and set-design alone. Since Abe's story takes place in the '30s, the look and feel of the film was pushed back to that time period. The Koto and Japanese folk music are my favorite part of this timed storytelling and really gave each scene a mesmerizing edge. The color and lighting was also extremely impressive and, in terms of shooting in the evening, very hard to pull off. The subtle storytelling and isolation of key events has been compared to Ozu and other prominent Japanese filmmakers, and rightfully so. There are excellent sources of comedy as well, though not in the traditional sense. This is a story about descent into madness that was approached with bravery, both on the part of the director and the actors.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 16, 2011 4:22pm
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