Based on a well-known high-profile criminal case from 1936, In the Realm of the Senses is a biopic on Sada Abe, a geisha-cum-courtesan, and her lecherous relationship with Kichizo- Ishida, the owner of an inn she worked for as a maid. The two engaged in a prurient and obsessive bond where they isolated themselves for six days to partake in uninterrupted intercourse that came to an end with Kichizo’s death from asphyxiation. The infatuated Abe severed her partner’s penis, which is where the film concludes, but her story continued as she was arrested a few days later with Kichizo’s genitals in her bag.
Erotic asphyxiation, sitophilia, rape, paedophilia and castration: when the sexual intimations and intimidations put on view in In the Realm of the Senses are listed out of context, the perverse acts may be mistaken for scenes from an unruly hardcore and frankly depraved pornographic feature. The reading may not be too far from the truth.
Yet, what sets aside Oshima’s film is its radical treatment of its subject matter and the ways it sparked debates around one question the film anchored as its pivot – can sex ever be considered to have a place amongst the pantheon of high art? Ever since the film’s release, the question has laid the foundation upon where much of its critical analysis has hinged: the candid exhibition of real sex and penetration provoked a reconsideration of realism in cinema; its subversion of codes of both pornography and cinema demanded analysis that accommodated gender politics, psychoanalysis and spectatorship; and, finally, the numerous battles with state control in different national contexts provoked vital questions on the validity of censorship. Suffice to say, In the Realm of the Senses titillated critical issues far beyond any porn film of customary standards.
Sada Abe’s unique life has become a source of inspiration for novels, plays and films, including Noboru Tanaka’s A Woman Called Abe Sada (1975), Nobuhiko Obayashi’s more recent Sada (1998) and Teruo Ishii’s docudrama Love and Crime (1969). Although all drawn from the same real-life story of overdriven passion, In the Realm of the Senses stood out for its desire to foster an affinity with direct reality by cultivating a mode of realism where representation became presentation and re-enactment was abandoned for enactment. The two main actors who performed Kichizo-Ishida and Sada Abe engaged in real and unadulterated sex infront of camera and crew,marking previously unchartedterritory forthe portrayal of sex in narrative cinema. Nikkatsu action film star Tatsuya Itoh (Kichi) and Eiko Matsuda (Sada), whose previous credentials included participation in Shu-ji Terayama’s avant-garde theatre troupe Tenjo- Sajiki, together joined forces to fulfil Oshima’s aspiration to shoot real sex, something the director had contemplated since his third feature Sun’s Burial (1960). With In the Realm of the Senses, portrayals of sex reached a new pinnacle regarding realism in the cinematic medium.
Resonating with the rise of feminism in the 1970s for film studies and beyond, the film’s narrative and representational politics called out to be discussed in this context. The pleasures Sada attained from sex displayed on-screen, on the one hand, has been celebrated for radically subverting gender representations and eschewing the privilege usually subscribed to the masculine gaze. On the other hand, some readings have asserted the prevailing presence of phallocentrism, suggesting Sada’s final act to be an acknowledgement of her ‘lack’ and a display of her dependence on the male gender (Lehman 1987; Allsop 2004; Standish 2007). The film was taken up by the emerging wave of psychoanalysis in film studies, with the climactic moments becoming a literal presentation of the allegory of castration. Nonetheless, such readings have also been turned on their head as the threatened loss could imply a remodelling of Jacques Lacan’s ‘lack’ into Sada Abe’s ‘gain’ (Williams 2008). The androcentrism of fetishism was substituted with a phallic obsession and the film’s play on voyeurism, another recurrent feature in psychoanalytic film studies, similarly disavowed standard templates. In the film’s unusual demonstration of scopophilia, the all-female voyeurs are acknowledged by the subjects of their gaze and encouraged to join by Sada and Kichi, who are visibly aroused in response to being watched (Sharp 2008). In extension, the position of the film’s spectators has also been explored in relation to Bertolt Brecht’s theories of distanciation that were in critical vogue in the 1970s, an approach where the audience is encouraged to recognise their position as spectators (Heath 1977; Polan 1983; Mellen 2004; Richie 2009). In the case of In the Realm of the Senses, O – shima’s on-screen voyeurs and his use of repetition, high-angle shots and withdrawn camera positions achieves this. On the other hand, the film’s persistence on accounting for the senses has probed some to argue against a Brechtian reading, suggesting the invitations to join the sex for the on-screen voyeurs also extend to the film’s audience (Turim 1998;Williams 2008; Nagib 2011). Described as a cocoon by actor Tatsuya Itoh,the closed universe of the inn room where much of the film is set strips the film bare to encourage such range in the spectrum of interpretations. The formal rigour of Hideo Itoh’s camerawork and compositional balance in Ju-sho- Toda’s production design equally support this. Any overt exploration of politics is subdued, limited to an invocation of the rise of imperialism in the 1930s in the shape of minor hints – one, a celebrated scene where Kichi walks unperturbed against a wave of marching soldiers and, the other, the setting of the year 1936 recalling a failed military coup on 26 February of the same year. Politics, instead, is positioned in the film’s relationship it begets with its audience.
A calculated and explicit attack on censorship, In the Realm of the Senses provoked state responses of unprecedented measures. When we assemble the reactions across countries for the film’s release in theatres and home-movie formats, we are provided with insights into the politics of culture in various guises. Irrespective of his longstanding troubles with the Japanese censors Eirin, the following indictments must have felt merciless for O- shima: a print was confiscated by customs before its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1976; a print was also impounded in Germany, but screened uncut a year later; the uncut version only screened in Britain for the first time in 2011; and Japanese audiences have yet to see the film uncensored. Furthermore, Oshima faced obscenity charges in Japan for the publication of the script that included stills photographed on set, from which he was only acquitted in 1982 (Cather 2012). In the proceedings and his essay ‘Theory of Experimental Pornographic Film’ (1976), Oshima decried the concept of obscenity itself as indefinable and ultimately meaningless especially when, such as in the case of his own film, taboos are unconditionally liberated and all expressions of desire are embraced.
It was the lifting of censorship regulations in France, however, that had ultimately encouraged the film to be made in the first place. A transnational, even transcontinental, collaboration began when the adventurous French producer Anatole Dauman, capitalising on the changes in law, came up with the idea to offer Oshima unrestrained freedom to shoot a sex film. As one of the producers for Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) that was partially shot in Japan, his partnership with Oshima became one of the many transnational projects Dauman undertook with Japanese filmmakers that continued with the equally erotic Fruits of Passion (1981) by Shu-ji Terayama. Shot in Japan, the footage of In the Realm of the Senses was sent unprocessed to France where the negatives were developed and the film was edited. The film’s production and reception history begs for it to be discussed in the context of transnational cinema as a collaboration born out of more than monetary necessities.
Indeed financial and state considerations were not the only traits that marked the transnationality of In the Realm of the Senses. A close analysis suggests the film bridged across East–West binaries to accumulate an array of influences in the shaping of the film. The portrayals of sex in European culture, especially the candid depictions of sex with political subtext seen in the literature of Georges Bataille (The Story of the Eye) and Marquis de Sade (120 Days of Sodom), are indisputable stimuli for the film. More contemporarily, Europe was in the process of undergoing a renaissance in the serious treatment of sex on film, with Dušan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s adaptation of de Sade, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) setting high standards. In the Realm of the Senses, nonetheless, was also undoubtedly and inescapably a Japanese film. Despite purporting a disdain for his country’s cinema – ‘My hatred of Japanese film includes absolutely all of it’ (O- shima 1970) – O – shima sought inspiration from pink cinema, Japan’s developing soft-core film industry that had begun spawning new talents in filmmaking. Oshima invited director and producer Ko-ji Wakamatsu, a rebel even within pink cinema, to take charge of the film as executive producer. Wakamatsu also brought together luminaries from his own industry, such as cinematographer Hideo Itoh and director Yo-ichi Sai in an early role as an assistant. Sharing his admiration for Nikkatsu studio’s directors Tatsumi Kumashiro and Noboru Tanaka who made soft-core flicks that were dubbed roman porno, O- shima paid homage by casting Nikkatsu actresses Aoi Nakajima and Meika Seri as geishas. Beyond cinema, moreover, O- shima drew from Japan’s past prior to modernisation in the Meiji period where uninhibited sex was practiced and explored artistically, a praxis that was later suppressed under pressures to assimilate to foreign standards. Specifically, the aesthetic tradition of shunga and ukiyo-e prints of the Edo period imparted substantial influence on the film’s visual composition and forthright display of lust, as discerned more recently by scholars attuned to developments in the academic field of intermediality (Williams 2008; Nagib 2011). The mixing of influences for the film’s title similarly induced a range of resonations: the literal translation of the Japanese title, Ai no Corrida, is ‘love’s bullfight’, which borrows the Spanish term corrida; L’Empire des Sens (Empire of Senses), the French title, appropriates and challenges Roland Barthes’ L’Empire des signes (Empire of Signs, 1970) where, in a post-structuralist semiotic reading of Japan as a ‘fictive nation’, Barthes gave signs primacy over what they may signify; and the English title, In the Realm of the Senses, offers a less Orientalist connotation with the replacement of ‘empire’ with ‘realm’.
Although O- shima has been described as an anti-auteur for his resistance to repetition throughout his filmmaking practice, the film, in many ways, signalled a turning point in the trajectory of his career. From there on, Oshima would carry on his collaboration with producer Dauman to make Empire of Passion (1978) and continued to take part in international co-productions until Taboo (1999) took him back to Sho-chiku studios where he had started his career in film. Having dealt with the immediate present for the most part, his subsequent films after In the Realm of the Senses began to engage with Japan’s feudal past. Oshima, however, never let go of his interest in different shades of sexuality and stories of crime and punishment, a career-long obsession that reached an apex with the film. In the Realm of the Senses remains his most profound achievement and still continues to dumbfound audiences and critics for its uninhibited radicalism.
Samara Lea Allsop, ‘Ai No Corrida: In The Realm Of The Senses’, in Justin Bowyer (ed.), The Cinema of Japan and Korea, London, Wallflower, 2004, pp. 103–9.
Kirsten Cather, ‘A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words: In the Realm of the Senses (1976–1982)’, in The Art of Censorship in Postwar Japan, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2012, pp. 197–220.
Stephen Heath, ‘The Question Oshima’, Wide Angle, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1977, pp. 49–57.
Peter Lehman, ‘Oshima: The avant-garde artist without an avant-garde style’, Wide Angle, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1987, pp. 18–31.
Christine Marran, ‘Cinematic Sexualities: The Two Faces of Abe Sada in Japanese “Poruno” Film’ Asian Cinema, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1996/97, pp. 81–90.
Joan Mellen, In the Realm of Senses, London, BFI, 2004.
Lúcia Nagib, ‘The Realm of the Senses, The Ethical Imperative and the Politics of Pleasure’, World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism, New York; London, Continuum, 2011.
Nagisa Oshima, ‘Interview’, Cahiers du cinéma, 218, March, 1970, pp. 30–4.
Nagisa Oshima, Cinema, Censorship and the State: The Writings of Nagisa Oshima, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Dawn Lawson, Cambridge, MA, 1992.
Dana Polan, ‘Politics as Process in Three Films by Nagisa Oshima,’ Film Criticism, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 33–41.
Donald Richie, ‘In the Realm of the Senses: Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography’,Criterion, 30 April 2009, www.criterion.com/current/posts/1108-in-therealm-of-the-senses-some-notes-on-oshima-andpornography (accessed 8 October 2013). Originally published in Neppu, December 2006.
Jasper Sharp, Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, Surrey, FAB Press, 2008.
Isolde Standish, ‘Transgression and the Politics of Porn: O- shima Nagisa’s In the Realm of the Sense (1976)’, in Alastair Philips and Julian Stringer (eds), Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts, New York and London, Routledge, 2007, pp. 217–28.
Maureen Turim, The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast, Berkeley, CA and London, University of California Press, 1998.
Linda Williams, ‘Hard-Core Eroticism: In the Realm of the Senses (1976)’, in Screening Sex, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2008.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Japan, France. Production Company: Argos Films, Oshima Productions, Shibata Organisation. Director: Nagisa Oshima. Producer: Anatole Dauman. Screenwriter: Nagisa Oshima. Cinematographer: Hideo Itoh. Music: Minoru Miki. Editors: Patrick Sauvion, Keiichi Uraoka. Cast: Tatsuya Itoh (Kichizo- Ishida), Eiko Matsuda (Sada Abe), Aoi Nakajima (Toku), Meika Seri (Matsuko), Kanae Kobayashi (Old Geisha Kikiryu-), Yasuko Matsui (Tagawa Inn Manager), Taiji Tonoyama (Old Beggar), Kyo-ji Kokonoe (Teacher Omiya).]
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.