Criterion // 1976 // 102 Minutes // Rated NC-17
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 28th, 2009
One of the most sexually explicit mainstream films of all time is now a part of the Criterion Collection. Is it glorified trash or glorious art?
The story is a fairly simple affair. The year is 1936, and a Japanese fish market owner named Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji, Empire of Passion) begins to lust after Sada (Eiko Matsuda, Five and the Skin), one of his servants. The two begin a passionate love affair, and slowly but surely descend into dark and violent sexual activity. As their sex becomes increasingly intense, their relationship becomes increasingly unstable. Are the two lovers headed toward tragedy?
In the Realm of the Senses has been widely regarded as one of the most controversial films ever made. This is largely because of the explicit sexual content it contains. Believe me, it's explicit. All sorts of unsimulated sexual activity is on display from start to finish. As the film progresses, the sex becomes increasingly masochistic and brutal, as the bedroom activities begin to include choking, slapping, biting, and other such unpleasantries. It has constantly been described as "shocking," and it genuinely earns that description. In the Realm of the Senses contains content extreme enough to make even the most seasoned moviegoer flinch. The film has been discussed at great length by cinema buffs, usually centering on whether or not the film is pornographic.
Film historian Donald Richie certainly doesn't think so, as he devotes a rather significant portion of his essay (included in Criterion's trademark booklet) to defending director Nagisa Oshima's artistic decisions and explaining in lengthy detail precisely why nothing here actually qualifies as genuine pornography. I'm not quite so sure. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. It's certainly not a particularly erotic film (in fact, it's often downright terrifying in terms of sexual content), but it does dwell at length on unsimulated hardcore sexual content. Yes, the acting is considerably better than standard porn, the cinematography is artful, the musical score offers nuanced emotional complexities rather than lustful thumps and bumps, but the fact of the matter is that most viewers are going to remember In the Realm of the Senses as "the movie with all of the kinky explicit sex in it."
Oh, to be sure, the film is far more than mere pornography. The film is not just a thin excuse to provide graphic sex scenes. Oshima is too talented a director to provide something so shallow, and his film really does have a lot of engaging subtext about Japanese society. Themes of social repression are explored through the sexual relationship of the two lovers in the film, and the extremely violent ending offers an undeniably potent slice (no pun intended) of symbolism. As played by Fuji and Matsuda, the two lovers presented in the film are very complex and compelling human beings. Fuji was an experienced actor who had been in many films, Matsuda was a newcomer who had never starred in a movie, but both are equally compelling here. Watch the way their relationship shifts as the film progresses. Early on, Sada regards herself as little more than a willing sexual slave to Kichizo, but as their relationship moves forward, she begins to dominate (and firmly takes the sexual activity down a path of violent sadomasochism). Oshima, Matsuda and Fuji work together to create one of cinema's most memorably turbulent relationships.
While I don't really want to repeat all of the arguments and points that have been made by so many others before, a review of In the Realm of the Senses cannot really be written without the critic addressing his own feelings about the sexuality in the film. Some would suggest that those who focus on the sexual content of the film are missing the point, which sounds a bit like smug critical B.S. to me. The film offers almost non-stop sexual activity from start to finish, and it cannot be dismissed in the name of focusing on the film's, "true themes and intentions." Anyway, all of that to get around to saying this: I find the sexual content in the film distracting.
I think that the basic structure of the film and the idea of using a sexual relationship to offer statements about society is a very sound one. However, the use of graphic, real sex is a risky move that doesn't really work. I realize that some of the film's defenders will suggest that the unsimulated sexual activity is crucial to the success of the film, but permit me to explain. There has been much discussion about whether real sexual activity and artful cinema can successfully join forces, and I'm very skeptical about the idea. Any time real sexual activity enters the fray, the awareness that what we are watching is complete reality immediately comes front and center. We are instantly made aware that we are watching two actors actually engaging in sexual intercourse, that most intimate and personal of activities. It is impossible to separate the actor from the character in such scenes, and it disrupts the dramatic flow of the proceedings. For that reason, I find In the Realm of the Senses to be a rather mixed viewing experience. It's an interesting idea, but I think it falls well short of being the masterpiece that some have proclaimed it to be.
Criterion does a really fantastic job with the transfer here, providing a clear and vibrant image that is sure to impress most viewers. The level of detail is really exceptional for a standard-definition release, particularly in terms of facial detail. Flesh tones are accurate and blacks are very deep. Matsuda's bright outfits pop off the screen in a rather dynamic way in contrast to the slightly more muted surroundings. The film is also being released on Blu-ray and undoubtedly looks amazing in hi-def, but this is about as strong as one could ask any DVD release of a 1976 film to be. There are very faint flecks here and there, but they are barely noticeable. The mono audio track effectively conveys the dialogue and music with gentle clarity. It's mostly a low-key track, and sound design is fairly minimal.
Criterion's single-disc release offers the usual solid batch of extras. The first and best supplement is a commentary by critic Tony Rayns, who puts aside any expectations of lurid sensationalism early on by declaring that he will not be discussing sexual techniques or digging into the specifics of the sexual activity in the film. Rayns mostly ignores what is taking place on-screen and uses the time to discuss the history of the film, the themes contained within it, background info and context on the actors and filmmakers, and the obligatory "is it porn?" discussion. It's an informative and well-researched track that is well worth hearing. There's also a vintage 5-minute interview with Oshima, Fuji and Matsuda, a brand-new 17-minute interview with Oshima, and over a half-hour of interviews with various crew members. Some six minutes of deleted footage is included, bracketed by another six minutes of footage contained in the final cut of the film (in order to give the deleted footage context). The new stuff is presented in color, while the film material is in black-and-white. Finally, the sensationalistic U.S. theatrical trailer is presented here, mixing footage of sexual activity with quotes from critics on how artful and marvelous the film is.
In the Realm of the Senses is an important film in a certain sense, as it is one of the most notable combinations of artistic filmmaking and explicit sexual activity. I don't think it's a complete success, but this Criterion release does a fine job of putting the whole thing in context for viewers.
The film itself led to a hung jury, but the Criterion release is not
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated NC-17
* Deleted Footage