Words like "notorious" and "infamous" come to mind when initially grappling with how to approach In the Realm of the Senses, Nagisa Oshima's 1976 sexual allegory. It's a movie with a reputation, and not one that it has come by unfairly, I might add. Senses is an extremely dirty movie. It's hardcore erotica and explicit enough that if Jerry and George were passing it in the locker room on Seinfeld, they'd use a copy of Tropic of Cancer to cover it up. Yes, Henry Miller is the less salacious of the two evils.
Based on a true incident from 1936, In the Realm of the Senses is the story of two lovers obsessed with each other's bodies and the eventual darkness the pursuit of this obsession leads them into. Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) is a serving girl at a local inn who falls into an affair with the married owner, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji). A virile man with a voracious appetite, Kichizo has sex with his wife every morning before going to work, but he also "drinks outside the home" when more is required. Though this euphemism does entail actual drinking, the implication is that Kichizo may be ordering more than sake at these other inns. Intrigued by Sada's past history--she was once a prostitute, and she is currently working as a waitress because her husband (whom we never meet) had a business fail--Kichizo instigates an affair with her, one that quickly turns from sneaky encounters in shadowy rooms to a full-blown 24-7 orgy.
No, I'm not exaggerating. It is literally a 24-7 orgy. The pair move to a different inn where they have a marriage ceremony performed by the geisha there, and then they proceed to ravish each other non-stop for days on end, barely pausing to eat and, as far as Sada is concerned, even going to the bathroom is too much time apart. The rare exception out of the home is for her to go visit one of her old clients, a high school principal, who provides them with added money to live on. A brief respite where Kichizo returns to his wife inspires jealousy and rage from Sada, and a night out on the town turns into exhibitionism.
In the Realm of the Senses is pure erotica, which in some eyes is, yes, just a fancy way to say the "p-word." The difference between the two is a debate unto itself, though I would say the difference between erotica and its less-respected sibling is that in erotica, the performers never resort to debasing themselves for the mere purpose of titillation. Though there is sex in just about every scene of this movie, Oshima is adding a subtext to his story of these insatiably perverse partners. Like most erotica, In the Realm of the Senses eventually slips into rather disturbing territory. Sada's need for constant pleasure--she has allegedly been diagnosed by a doctor as "acutely sensitive" and thus she not only needs nonstop action but she also feels it to an exceptional degree--eventually consumes Kichizo, and the pair keep active whether their bodies can handle the stress or not. A pattern of submission and domination is created, and the roles switch quite regularly. The sex play eventually begins to involve food, voyeurism, and violence both consensual and very real. Sada is a disturbed woman prone to fits of rage, but Kichizo is no better despite his even keel. His regular acceptance of Sada's latest idea, as well as his own nasty inventions, and the way he laughs at the kinks can be more unsettling than her pulling a knife on someone or stalking him. Make no mistake, either; in case you're not getting this, In the Realm of the Senses is a very explicit movie, and every act performed is seen in unflinching detail. As the performers challenge each other to go even farther, you will be challenged to go with them. Some may find it hard to keep watching.
Those same performers are also the main reason to keep watching, despite what shocking things they might do. Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji bring an astounding level of craft to roles that could have seen them acting as mere toys for Oshima to bend and pose into his bedroom scenarios. They both manage an impressive level of naturalism in their work, all the more impressive since Oshima is creating an unnatural world around them. Not so much physically--the art direction is fantastic, with a great attention to detail and beautiful colors that look dazzling in this sumptuous new transfer--but more in the broader sense that In the Realm of the Senses is, as the title suggests, meant to be a story that takes place in its own pocket dimension, one where boundaries of social mores and common physical experience are no longer applicable. Regardless of its basis in fact, Oshima takes the story more toward fantasy. The new world he creates is a completely sexualized dimension where everyone is seemingly as horny as Sada and Kichizo deep down, they are just waiting for someone to activate their desires. Everywhere they go, someone is either talking about sex, thinking about sex, or having sex, and if they aren't going to join in, they are content to watch.
There are more specific and detailed readings to be made of In the Realm of the Senses. Those who are more informed of Japanese history and the social structure can find political meanings in the movie that are, honestly, lost on me--though many of the extras on this DVD do lead the way to understanding more about what Nagisa Oshima intended to do with this taboo-breaking picture. Sure, there are some shots featuring soldiers, a sign of Japan's militaristic leanings in the 1930s, but not much indication beyond that of what kind of tide the pair may be working against. I'm not a completely unintelligent guy, so one does have to question why a film more than thirty years old continues to travel the world and intrigue viewers despite the fact that one of its main subtexts is not immediately discernible to what I would guess would be the bulk of the viewership. Is this maybe the function of erotica, to provide us with a viable argument for looking at smut? "I don't surf the internet to get my jollies, I look at Art"?
The question also remains of how to process said smut. If we are to accept that most highbrow erotica drifts into skeevy territory, delving into fetishes and more extreme thrills, then how to reconcile the titillation we may or may not feel? This is not like browsing the shelves at the adult bookstore to find that one DVD that suits a particular pleasure, this is a film director laying out a smorgasbord of kinky treats and saying that if you are going to partake of one, then you will partake of all. The downward slide is not an indicator of a moral message, either; Oshima is not warning us that if we give in to our carnal nature, we will end up like Sada and Kichizo. Even so, I find myself in agreement with the witnesses who eventually turn away from his characters in the movie. In due course, the outsiders who are initially eager to watch the copulating drift away from the lovers, repulsed by their lack of control and their refusal to even pause to clean themselves. The principal rejects Sada because she smells, the geisha stop coming to entertain the couple out of fear of what they might do, and when it came down to it, I found myself turning away, too. What was it all for? Am I merely meant to see there are consequences to all human behavior? To question the nature of voyeurism, that to accept one behavior as worth spying on, I must take my peeping the whole way? Or is Oshima flipping the script, turning the dominance theme on the viewer? At the beginning, I felt I was in charge, but by the end of In the Realm of the Senses, it was in charge of me.
Perhaps this is the insurmountable hurdle of all controversial films, that they may maintain their ability to shock while losing whatever social significance made them seem relevant in the first place. Or maybe it's that the initial scandal was so overpowering, it obscured that there wasn't more movie underneath. That's certainly how I felt when recently watching La Grande Bouffe, or even upon viewing Salo. Both left me feeling like I got what they were saying but they failed to explain why it should matter. (Then again, maybe it's not a matter of time and just a fault of the genre, as Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's recent comic book foray into the erotic, Lost Girls, inspired much the same reaction.) In the Realm of the Senses, no matter how well-made from an aesthetic standpoint, no matter how gorgeously photographed and expertly acted, still only has the flimsiest of stories, its plot no better than the clichés of XXX skinflicks about randy co-eds getting it on with the pizza man or bored housewives getting some extra chlorination from the pool boy. Perhaps it's just a problem with me and my own puritanical upbringing rearing its judgmental head, but I can't help think that despite the considerable amount of fuss, In the Realm of the Senses is not about very much.
For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.