Director: Nagisa Ôshima
Screenplay: Nagisa Ôshima, Kôji Wakamatsu (uncredited)
Starring: Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji, Aoi Nakajima, Yasuko Matsui, Meika Seri, Kanae Kobayashi, Taiji Tonoyama, Kyôji Kokonoe
Country: Japan, France
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1976
BBFC Certificate: 18

Writer/director Nagisa Ôshima regularly courted controversy with his films, even early on in his career, due to his politicized attacks on Japanese society. In 1976, however, he pushed the boundaries even further than before, troubling censors around the world with In the Realm of the Senses (a.k.a. Ai No Korîda, which translates as ‘Love is a Bullfight’).

The project came about from a working relationship Ôshima had with the French producer Anatole Dauman, who had distributed some of the director’s self-produced films in Europe. After finding some success with these, Dauman asked if Ôshima would be interested in directing a pornographic art film for him. Ôshima considered the idea and agreed, so long as he could do it his own way, showing unsimulated sex in the film.

Japan had very strict pornography laws at the time, so In the Realm of the Senses had to be shot on a closed set and the material processed in France. They could only get away with making the film, in fact, because technically it was a French production, as that’s where the money came from. The film had to be edited in France too.

Ôshima wanted to keep it a Japanese film on the surface though, and still shoot it there to break some of the taboos of his home country through the production. However, the film, to this day, still hasn’t been made available completely uncut in Japan. Ôshima and his publisher were even charged with obscenity for publicly releasing the script with some production stills from the film.

During this court case, Ôshima defended himself by stating that “nothing that is expressed is obscene; what is obscene is what is hidden. When we are free to see everything, both obscenity and taboo disappear.”

The argument about whether In the Realm of the Senses is art or pornography has raged on for years, overshadowing the film itself. In interviews included on this disc, Ôshima and several other people involved in making the film call it pornographic, so I don’t see why it can’t be both art and pornography.

Regardless of categorisation, with Criterion releasing the film in a polished-up Blu-ray in the UK, I ventured into the Realm to see how the film stood up * after all these years.

* Please excuse any innuendo or double entendres in my review – in my opinion, if you can’t occasionally giggle about sex, you’re not enjoying it.

In the Realm of the Senses is based on the true-life story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a woman who, in the mid-1930s, accidentally killed her lover and then cut off his penis after he died. Sada drew a lot of sympathy with the public at the time. Ôshima describes how Japan was, then, at a peak of militarism and everyone was expected to serve the country, whilst this woman was doing something completely for herself. Due to the public support, Sada’s punishment was extremely light for what could ostensibly be seen as murder.

Ôshima’s film focuses purely on the relationship between Sada and her lover, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji). We see them first meet at the beginning of the film and follow their sexual exploits over the course of several months (in reality, the couple were only together for 6 days). Kichizo buys a house for them to spend their days and nights having sex away from his wife. His body gradually struggles to keep up with Sada’s endless appetite for lovemaking, but he endures whilst the couple come up with new, more dangerous ways of pleasuring each other.

In the Realm of the Senses is, on a surface level and perhaps beyond, quite a simple film. There is little to the plot beyond what I described above. The film purely focuses on the passionate desire of these two people. It’s a straight-up love story, in essence, just one shown through graphic sexual content.

However, the film also explores some interesting avenues, looking at the idea of ‘ownership’ over one another in a relationship, as well as the connection between pleasure and pain and the idea of ‘sex unto death’, suggesting death could be considered some sort of ultimate ecstasy.

The narrow surface focus of the film did mean it felt a little repetitive and patience-testing at times though. I won’t lie, I found much of the on-screen sex quite erotic, but watching it for over an hour and forty minutes became a little wearisome. I do believe Ôshima could have told his story in a shorter time frame for greater impact.

Ôshima undeniably crafted an extraordinarily beautiful film though, so it’s hard not to get entranced by the whole affair. The semi-stylised period production design by Shigemasa Toda is exquisite and the elegant cinematography makes the most of its bold colours.

The film’s style reflects Japanese traditions of depicting sex through art of various forms. Ôshima also seems to be celebrating the tradition of pleasure houses, which had disappeared in Japan over the years.

The principal cast members must be applauded too, not only for being brave to enact such unfiltered intimacy on screen, but for successfully portraying their characters’ deep, passionate love for each other, steering the film away from simply feeling sordid.

Reportedly it was hard to find the male lead. On top of the difficulty of finding a Japanese actor willing to show his genitals on screen, they needed to find someone who could be erect on cue for the various close-ups and unsimulated sex in the film. Fuji was a known actor, having made a large volume of genre movies and some TV prior to this, and was only convinced to get on board about a week before shooting began.

Matsuda, on the other hand, had never acted on film before and was the first person Ôshima and his team auditioned for the role of Sada. They looked at 60-odd other people afterwards but went back to her. She struggled to establish much of a career after this, whilst Fuji enjoyed a great boost after years of previously making largely cheap action movies. This difference is likely a sign of the sexist attitudes of the industry, looking down on a woman for portraying sexual acts on screen whilst celebrating men for doing so, calling them “brave” and such.

Overall, In the Realm of the Senses is a strikingly beautiful and deeply erotic exploration of desire at its most intense. It does outstay its welcome perhaps with a strong focus on sex and little else, but it’s strangely transfixing nonetheless, largely due to its artful presentation.

Film:

In the Realm of the Senses will be released on Blu-ray on 3rd January in the UK, as part of the Criterion Collection. The picture quality is exceptional. Though I noticed a couple of very faint lines in one brief section, the image is, generally, richly coloured and detailed, with a natural, light grain. The audio is crisp and pleasing too.

The disc includes the following special features:

– New, restored high-definition digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition)
– New audio commentary featuring film critic Tony Rayns
– New interview with actor Tatsuya Fuji
– A 1976 interview with director Nagisa Oshima and actors Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, and a 2003 program featuring interviews with consulting producer Hayao Shibata, line producer Koji Wakamatsu, assistant director Yoichi Sai, and film distributor Yoko Asakura
– Deleted footage
– U.S. trailer
– New and improved English subtitle translation
– PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie and a reprinted interview with Oshima

Tony Rayns’ commentary is superb. He covers all bases, analysing the film, giving background to the talent involved and also talking about the real-life story of Sada. It makes for essential listening.

The 2003 programme, which runs close to 40 minutes, is also excellent. The various contributors provide a thorough account of the film’s inception, production and reception. As such, it’s a valuable resource.

The archival interview with Ôshima and the principal cast members is a brief but welcome addition too.

In the new interview with Tatsuya Fuji, the actor talks affectionately of Ôshima and the film, as well as describing the working process. It’s a decent piece, though it repeats some stories from the longer documentary.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, but I found an essay on the film by Donald Richie on the Criterion website that I assume is the same as the one in the booklet. I wouldn’t say I’d agree with everything he says when separating In the Realm of the Senses from pornography, particularly when Ôshima himself calls it a “hardcore pornographic film” in an interview on the disc, but Richie’s take on the film is interesting.

So, a suitably strong selection of extras to complement a bold, controversial film. Highly recommended to those willing to take the plunge.

Disc: ​​

In the Realm of the Senses - Criterion
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