Criterion // 1976 // 102 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // April 28th, 2009
Based on a true incident.
One of the most controversial and taboo-breaking films ever created, Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm Of The Senses is as infamous as it is mysterious; a complex blend of politics, eroticism, and self-destruction best known for its actors performing constant and unsimulated sex throughout the film. Previously only available in uncensored versions or poor quality DVD releases, it has been lovingly restored with Criterion's usual care and sophistication. I screened In The Realm Of The Senses (Blu-Ray), but it's also out in a standard DVD.
In 1936 in prewar Japan, during an era of escalating imperialism and government control, two lovers find solace in the arms of one another, but their relationship soon turns destructive. For Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji, Empire of Passion) and Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda, Five and the Skin), they find in each other an escape from their lives -- him a hotel owner, her a reformed prostitute and servant girl employed under his care -- and soon begin a tumultuous affair that threatens to destroy both their lives.
It is immediately clear on watching In The Realm Of The Senses that director Nagisa Oshima set out to antagonize as many people as humanly possible when he made this provocative, challenging, and controversial film. A Japanese period piece with overtones of political dissention with actors performing real sex acts on-camera with full-on nudity -- all of this was simply unheard of in 1976 in Japan. Nor was it allowed. To this day, the film has never been shown in Japan in its uncut form. Try as Oshima might, it has not received mainstream distribution in its homeland and is labeled by critics as being pornography. To be fair, from the Japanese perspective, this wasn't far off from the truth.
By 1976, sexual taboos and cinema were being broken in mainstream international cinema by films like Last Tango in Paris, but like much of the Japanese mindset of the era, Japan took a unique, dichotomous, almost schizophrenic view towards sexuality in cinema, one that was both liberal and restrictive at the same time. Rather than slowly incorporate sexuality into mainstream cinema the way the French, the Italians (and to a lesser extent Hollywood) were, the Japanese spun it off into its own genre: pink cinema (pinku eiga). Extremely popular in Japan through the 1960s and 1970, pink films pushed sexuality to audiences, but eschewed the outright pornographic, obeying very specific restraints and restrictions on what could be shown and for how long. Unlike Western pornography, which was seedy, low-budget, and had no restrictions on what body part could be inserted into what orifice, pink films were mainstream, legitimate bona fide productions often created by major Japanese film studios to balance their books and turn quick profits. The two cinema forms existed in uneasy alliance, respecting the distance between one another -- until In the Realm of the Senses came out of nowhere and threw everyone for a loop.
It is little wonder the Japanese had trouble wrapping their heads around Oshima's film. Not only does the film completely shatter every sexual taboo in Japan about sexuality in cinema, it flaunts its debauchery, pushing the envelope farther than any film had ever tried in the past. Actors Fuji and Matsuda perform real-life, on-screen sex in every possible way, getting increasingly exotic and elaborate in their lovemaking. To make matters more vexing, In The Realm Of The Senses disguises scathing political assault on prewar Japan and its decline into chaos behind the sex, hurling strong condemnation towards Japanese policies of government control and regulation. This uneasy mixing of sexuality, politics, and death prevented the film from ever finding solace in its homeland. On the plus side, it arrived into international arms at precisely the right time to find its place in avant-garde cinema.
Hauntingly beautiful and profoundly troubling, In The Realm Of The Senses is like a pornographic movie gone horribly awry. It is a nightmarish descent into obsession and compulsion and sexual exploration that keeps pushing through its own self-imposed boundaries before tearing right out the side, leaving a gaping hole in the mind of viewers. The initial voyeuristic thrill of enjoyment seeing naked people having sex gives way immediately to an uncomfortable feeling of dread, of obsession and madness and decline. As the film twists and plummets towards its finale, descriptive words like "avant-garde" feel quaint and impotent. In the Realm of the Senses is an exploration into taboo in its purest, rawest form, into discomfort and sexual exploration by laying absolutely everything bare in front of the camera, releasing it from its censoring constrictions. This film is not merely challenging; it is downright confrontational, demanding from audiences reactions of disgust, of bemusement, of horror and arousal and embarrassment.
The debate as to whether or not In the Realm of the Senses constitutes pornography is at the heart of our viewing experience of the film, and much on this subject is written in the excellent liner note essay by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie. Despite the very real sex acts going on right in front of us, a surprising amount of the film is not erotic, at least not in the way we expect our erotica to be presented. Voyeuristic to be certain, and there is a perverse thrill to the film that runs throughout, but as the film trudges towards its inexorable conclusion, sexual arousal is replaced by melancholy and alienation. Pleasure and joy soon give way to desperation between Abe and Ishida, a feverish desire to find a union that is temporary and fleeting. The pair sits in their hotel room, not eating, drinking copious amounts of sake and making love, which moves from tender to energetic to downright violent, as each new coupling fails to satisfy like a drug addict needing a stronger and stronger fix. The ending is violent, but despite its horrific undertones and gruesomeness, not entirely unexpected, given the state of their decline. Imagine Bonnie and Clyde, substituting coupling for bank robbery; all that violence begets a bad ending for the happy couple. Yes, there is nakedness, and yes, actual sex occurs on-camera, but In The Realm Of The Senses eschews simple categorization as "pornography," because frankly, it's too unsettling a film to be qualified as simple eroticism.
Amazingly, the film is based on actual historical events. The female protagonist is adapted from real-life Sada Abe, a woman who did in real life the acts depicted in this film (which I deliberately obscure to avoid spoilers). In Japan, the story of Abe has become rather legendary, but the film is less interested in the mythology and more interested in making profound observations about human interaction and sexuality. For Abe and Ishida, their descent into sexuality and pleasure is reckless, dangerous, and fraught with self-destruction; the Abe and Ishida we meet at the start of the film bare little resemblance to the sallow, wilted, self-destructive characters we see at the end. Their plight mirrors that of Japan, a country descending into self-doubt and destruction as one way of life rapidly finds itself on a collision course with another. In one of the most telling scenes of the film, we see imperial soldiers on the march throughout the streets, flags waving and crowds cheering their passage. Japan marches itself on a collision course to war with the world, but Ishida moves sullenly in the shadows in another direction. He is small, withered, and impotent; nothing like the strong, strapping man we first met at the start of the film. He is barely a shell of his former self, and he knows it. His disgust is evident on his face.
How much enjoyment and appreciation you can squeeze from In The Realm Of The Senses depends entirely on your self-flagellating capacity for discomfort and unease. No first viewing of this film is a pleasurable experience; this is deliberate and by the design of the director, prying out our discontentment, shame, and repression with a crowbar and laying it in front of us for all to see. Repeated viewings of the film aren't much more enjoyable. Yet there is an undeniable brilliance to Oshima's work, a thoroughly ruthless and efficient way his cinema is crafted, with gorgeous floating camerawork that feels intimate and alienating all at once. The more we open ourselves to this kind of filmmaking, the more we make unpleasant connections between sexuality and death and self-destruction. These are not pleasurable discoveries, but they are fascinating if only from a clinical sense. True avant-garde cinema aficionados live for this self-destruction and rebirth, this masochistic destruction of preconceived notions and beliefs. If we didn't love this kind of thing, people like David Lynch would be out of work.
As expected on a Criterion Blu-Ray, video quality is superb, offering a high-definition digital restoration of immaculate quality. The print is crystal clear, with no noticeable film damage of any kind detectable. Color tones are muted but accurate, with particular vibrancy in the reds, and contrast and detail levels are magnificent; every pore of skin, hair follicle, and blemish is crisp and detailed. Black levels are deep and natural, and only the faintest (but natural) traces of film stock grain brought out by the increased resolution. For a film more than thirty years old, this is an astonishing restoration. Get ready to throw away any previous DVD versions of this film you may have in your possession -- they are now officially jokes compared to how fantastic this edition looks.
Audio comes in a single uncompressed monaural soundtrack, presented in linear PCM, which is as simplistic and accurate a presentation as one could hope to find. As much restoration work has gone into the sound as the video; despite the age, there are no pops or crackles to be heard, which is an amazing achievement in of itself. The dialogue is clear, but some volume-fiddling was required to balance speaking levels from certain scenes to the next. This small criticism notwithstanding, you will not find a more technically superior version of this film available.
Criterion doles out some mean supplements, and this title is no exception; we get a brand-new full-length audio commentary with film critic Tony Raynes discussing the various controversial ins and outs (pun intended) of the film, a new 17-minute interview with actor Tatsuya Fuji, a short 1976 interview with director Nagisha Oshima and actors Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, a 30-minute 2003 feature featuring interviews with consulting producer Hayao Shibata, line producer Koji Wakamatsu, assistant director Yoichi Sai and film distributor Yoko Asakura, 5 or so minutes of deleted footage (which also showcase exactly what footage was put back into the film to make it uncut) and a surprisingly raunchy U.S. trailer. In addition, we get the aforementioned liner notes, which include a lengthy and fascinating essay by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie and a reprinted interview with director Oshima.
Let's be honest. Critical consensus is all but impossible on such a polarizing and challenging title. Heck, our very own retired Chief Justice Mike Jackson delivered a stunningly single-digit review of the old Fox Lorber edition of In The Realm Of The Senses, who found the film reprehensible beyond all merit. The film is intellectually fascinating, complex, and politically sardonic, but heavily assaults our own feelings on voyeurism, intercourse, on-screen depictions of sex and eroticism, almost violently so. As compelling as it is frustrating, there are going to be many people who will be put right off by the visceral content matter. They are, after all bumping the uglies.
Visually arresting, heart wrenchingly tragic and...well, very naked, In The Realm Of The Senses is a film designed to inflame the senses, both erotic and irritant. It challenges audiences to push past preconceived notions of sexuality and desire and explore darker, more aloof and uncomfortable realms within our psyche. A film that is both obscene and erotic, In The Realm Of The Senses is a challenging, provocative film, and an extraordinarily dangerous film to blind buy -- you have been warned. Still, whether you adore or loathe the film, one cannot help but admire its sheer chutzpah as a groundbreaking piece of cinematic history.
Criterion has delivered far and away the definitive version of this film, blowing the previous dubbed Fox Lorber release clear out of the water in every measurable metric. A masterful restoration and top-notch supplementary features make this edition an absolute treat to own. The Blu-Ray version of In the Realm of the Senses: Criterion Collection brings increased fidelity and image quality over the standard DVD release, but either version is a marked improvement from previous releases of the film available.
A controversial but emphatic "not guilty."
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* Deleted Footage