Directed by: Nagisa Ôshima.
Written by: Nagisa Ôshima.
Starring: Tatsuya Fuji (Kichizo Ishida), Eiko Matsuda (Sada Abe), Aoi Nakajima (Toku), Kyôji Kokonoe (Teacher Ômiya).
The list of non-pornographic films that contain as much sex and nudity as Nagida Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses is very short. The list of films that contain that much sex and nudity are also effective is even shorter – perhaps as few of three films with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, David Cronenberg’s Crash and John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus. And yet, what In the Realm of the Senses shares with those other three films – as wildly different as they are – is that it uses sex and nudity to make a broader point. On the surface, the movie is about a dark, sexual obsession that ends up destroying Ishida (Tatsua Fuji) and his mistress Sada (Eiko Matsuda). But Oshima saw this as a profoundly political film. Set in 1936, with the rise of fascism is Japan; perhaps the only way to rebel – to assert themselves as individuals – was to fuck.
Sada Abe is a former prostitute who comes to work at a more legitimate inn run by Ishida and his wife. It is not long before the beautiful Sada has caught her boss’s eye, and the two begin a torrid affair. This doesn’t seem new to Ishida, but something is different about Sada. He cannot get enough of her – and she cannot get enough of him. Soon, they have their own place together, and he is neglecting his duties and his wife, and the two stay in bed all day together, much to the chagrin of the servants who want to come in a clean the room because it’s starting to smell. The sex starts off as more or less normal, but the more time they spend with each other, the farther out it gets, until it threatens to consume them.
That is the basic plot of the movie, and while it seems simple, it really isn’t. Oshima spends almost the entire movie in various rooms with these two characters as the make love and talk, and yet the movie has a strange beauty to it. It is expertly crafted, and doesn’t fall into the trap of porn films in going for the money shot. While the movie will show all sorts of graphic nudity, and it is erotic, not cold, the film is not porn. Porn requires the point of it to be sexual arousal, and that isn’t what the point of the movie is. The point is these two characters, who are in love, and how society keeps them to the outside. They are not normal, so they are wicked and evil. They are apart from society – as seen in a scene where Ishida daring walks against the tide of the Imperial soldiers.
I was drawn into In the Realm of the Senses almost from the beginning. There is an awkwardness to some of the scenes at the beginning of their relationship – as they are still circling each other – but once the relationship starts, it is intrisicately fascinating. The performances by the two leads are brave – not just because of all the nudity, but also because of the emotional turmoil these characters go through. This is not a film for vain actors, and they lay themselves bare onscreen. There does come a point however, near the end of the movie, where all the nudity grows tiring. The final scene is masterfully shot and acted, but it does tend to drag on quite a bit. It wears a little thin by the end of the film.
And yet, it total, I admired In the Realm of the Senses. This is a mature, thoughtful film that uses sex – lots and lots of sex – but does so in an intelligent way that looks at the larger implications. If you look at this film and see porn, you aren’t looking very hard.