In The Realm Of The Senses – putting the ‘blue’ in Blu-ray
In The Realm Of The Senses, Nagisa Oshima’s still startling art-porn extravaganza, is (in and) out next week on Blu-ray, along with the director’s other classics Empire Of Passion and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.
In The Realm Of The Senses
(Nagisa Oshima, Jap, 1976)
Treading a very thin line between erotica and boredom, bleak tragedy and surreal satire, this is the porno you watch for the character arcs.
Some films come with such a reputation that their artistic merits are completely overshadowed by their sense of scandal – and In The Realm Of The Senses might be the most scandalous of all. Not only has it provoked outrage and censorship for decades as a result of its sexual explicitness, but even in the age of readily accessible Internet pornography, some of it still carries extraordinary WTF? power. You mean proper audiences actually watched this in real cinemas?
But what got under the censors’ skins wasn’t so much the flesh as the attitude: this is a frank, unapologetic and uncomfortable voyage into a desire so obsessive it borders on monomania. Servant Sada (Eiko Matsuda) and married master Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) embark on a tempestuous affair that lasts the entire film to the detriment of – well, just about anything else. The Realm of the title has it right: Nagisa Oshima treats sex not like the instruction manual of the Kama Sutra, but a travel guide to the buttons that need to be pressed, both on-screen and in the viewer.
It’s a very earnest attempt to follow sexual desire to its logical extremes: the complete abandon of the shackles of society and the discovery of feelings that these people never knew existed. Both are selfless to each other, but completely selfish to anyone around them. When they’re not having sex, they’re talking about it, and Kichi-san inspires such passion in his mistress that she’s perpetually gagging for it – indoors, outdoors, at meal times, when they have guests. The Japanese title, Ai No Corrida, translates as Bullfight, which is apt, but it’s more fun to read it as it sounds: Sada’s cry of distress whenever her fella attempts to leave the room for a break from the non-stop sex.
Is it sexy? Occasionally, but it’s also at various points disturbing, boring and funny. Much like porn, in other words, and here’s a film that takes the most basic of filmed action and adds enough symbolism in its decor and camera positions to expose our own feelings about sex. In a running gag worthy of Luis Bunuel, the servants start whingeing about how dirty and smelly the lovers’ room is getting…and yet they can’t stop hovering outside to watch. The film is like that for us, too, causing our emotions to constantly push and pull (ahem) against the on-screen activity.
Is it art? Assuredly so. No porn movie ever had this standard of insight into human behaviour, because the acting is astonishing. The portrayal of Sada is full of misogynistic clichés – she’s a nymphomanic whore who becomes a hysterical, jealous lover – but Eiko Matsuda emphasises how liberated sex makes her. Amongst other things, this is a film about control, and how sex upsets the social order, and Matsuda suggests that Sada is getting off on the power as much as anything.
Meanwhile, as Kichizo, Tatsuya Fuji goes from devilish alpha male to compliant, submissive guinea pig, a wryly ecstatic smile on his lips as he gives up the trappings of Japanese manhood. Their nationality is essential: Japan’s patriarchal society is headed into militarism and war (it’s set in 1936), but Kichizo is only too happy to lose his balls.