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NYFF Preview: In the Realm of the Senses

Like most of Nagisa Oshima’s movies, this is based on fact. In 1936 a young woman named Sada Abe was found wandering in the streets of Tokyo, apparently in a state of bliss, clutching a severed penis. It was discovered that her (married) lover Kichi had died in a sexual climax with her some days earlier, and that she had taken the genitals from his body as an assertion of their continuing passion for each other. As one of the first women in Japan to have her sexuality in any sense made public, Sada attracted considerable sympathy, and was finally sentenced to only six years’ imprisonment. According to Oshima, the mention of her name is still synonymous with the breaking of sexual taboos in Japan.

In the Realm of the Senses (Ai No Corrida, 76) reconstructs the relationship between Sada and Kichi, from its beginnings with Sada’s arrival as a new employee at Kichi’s inn, to its triumphant, convulsive end. Virtually all the film’s action takes place within a “closed” world of eroticism: every scene either depicts or relates directly to sexual love. The lovers deliberately isolate themselves from their society, drawing outsiders (geishas, inn-staff) into their sexual games only to increase their own pleasure. Their mutual ecstasies are predicated on a steady increase in erotic intensity: they experiment with voyeurism, copulation in sites where they risk being discovered, sex with elderly partners, and mild sado-masochism. Eventually, they recognize that death is not only the necessary climax to their pleasure, but also an integral part of it. In strictly Japanese terms, it’s surprising that Sada and Kichi did not opt for the traditional shinju or double-suicide; what makes Sada remarkable is that she felt secure enough in her “absolute” possession of her lover to be ready to go on living herself, and it was clearly this that drew Oshima to her story.

None of Oshima’s films looks or behaves much like any of the others, and In The Realm of the Senses establishes yet another new tonality in his work. The mise en scène appears utterly straightforward: nearly everything is filmed in long, static medium-shots (a strategy that tends to vouchsafe the “reality” of the physical action represented) that have neither the formalized organization of shots in The Ceremony (Gishiki, 71), nor the quasi-documentary naturalism of much of Boy (Shonen, 69), nor the self-questioning artifice of Death by Hanging (Koshikei, 68). At first, it is as if Oshima were endorsing his characters’ rhapsodic isolation by enshrining it in a form that permits no other frame of reference. A vein of fatalism in the plotting reinforces this impression, giving the film the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Kichi’s willing surrender to death is anticipated in two earlier couplings in which he thinks his partner has died, and several prominent appearances of knives and razors prefigure the climactic act of castration.

In fact, of course, Oshima challenges this complacency as surely as he challenged the supposed naturalism of Boy. The obvious authenticity of the lovemaking is offset by the unreality of Sada’s insatiable demands and Kichi’s hypervirility. Elements of expressionism (notably, the lighting of the interiors) complement the sense of hyperbole and help lead the film into a metaphorical register, in which an overt “fantasy” scene like Sada’s imagined murder of Kichi’s wife can stand on equal terms with the “realistic” scenes that it interrupts. Two other interpolated fantasies, both associated with Sada and both featuring young children, mark startling departures from the film’s dominant fictional world: one (placed during Sada’s first night apart from Kichi) shows Sada playing with a naked boy and girl, and the other (placed immediately after Kichi’s death) shows Sada, Kichi, and a little girl playing hide-and-seek in a huge, deserted stadium. Neither scene yields any straightforward psychological meaning, although both are rich in metaphorical suggestions; their main importance is evidently their status as interpolations, differentiated from the rest of the film by their limpid color, their sense of open space, and their emphasis on connotation over clear-cut denotation—all of which serve to generate tensions within the film.

But Oshima’s strongest challenge to any unilateral reading of the film comes in the closing moments, with the sudden appearance on the soundtrack of a narrator who describes Sada’s later arrest and locates the film’s action specifically in 1936. The mention of the date comes as a shock, not just because visual evidence alone could have placed the action in almost any year of the Meiji Restoration, but also because 1936 was a particularly significant year in Japan’s political history: the year that consolidated the growth of militarism, saw the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, and marked the country’s last serious attempt at a coup d’etat. Locating the action of In the Realm of the Senses in 1936 determines the meaning of a number of incidental details, from the fact that the children harassing a tramp in the opening scenes are clutching miniature national nags to the presence of a squad of armed troops who briefly block Kichi’s view as he waits for Sada; but it also makes the total absence of socio-political ideas from the film very striking. As Oshima has already demonstrated often (in the closing shot of Death by Hanging, for instance), absence can be as significant as presence.

However provocative such undercurrents may be—and it is clearly not accidental that Oshima should have made an ostensibly apolitical film at a time when Japanese political activists have lapsed into almost complete passivity—the film’s primary force remains its exceptionally bold analysis of the implications of true sexual passion. French critics have repeatedly invoked the current in anti-Catholic thought that runs from de Sade to Georges Bataille to “explain” the film’s psychosexual stance. Oshima, though, is interested in Sada and Kichi’s sexuality precisely because it reflects the mainstream of the Japanese erotic tradition (as a look at any of the 30-odd films by Koji Wakamatsu, who here worked as Oshima’s production manager, bears witness). Much in the film—from the use of traditional music throughout to Sada’s geisha trick of “laying” an egg from her vagina—evidences the acutely Japanese self-consciousness that makes Oshima’s earlier work so troubled, and troubling.

In the Realm of the Senses is not the first Japanese film to deal with Sada and Kichi—the magazine Kinema Jumpo cited Noburo Tanaka’s Jitsuroku Abe Sada (The True Story of Sada Abe) as one of the 10 best films of 1975—and it is not the first time that Oshima has foregrounded a sexual relationship in his work. On the other hand, it is the first film by a major Japanese director that could not be processed in Japanese laboratories, and cannot be exhibited in its own country without extensive cuts. Oshima says that he made the film because the offer of a Franco-Japanese co-production (with post-production facilities in France) allowed him to execute it with complete freedom; whatever else, the film is his polemical response to earlier battles with the Japanese censorship board. His audacity is fully matched by that of his excellent cast, especially the remarkable principals Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji.