IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Nagisa Oshima's towering influence over world cinema came as a result of the counter-culture self-identity he developed while involved in '50s-era student protest movements at Kyoto University. After stumbling into a filmmaking position at Japan's state-run Shockiku film studio in 1954, Oshima snaked his way through Japan's New Wave film movement of the '60s with groundbreaking films such as "Night and Fog in Japan"--a film whose controversial nature caused him to leave the studio and launch his own independent production company. Oshima's fiercely leftist temperament was not given to repetition or to safe subject matter. Instead he gravitated toward topical allegories based on actual events that questioned Japanese social mores. He consistently reinvented his cinematic approach with each new project so that no two of his films are alike.
Under the inspiration of adventurous French producer Anatole Dauman, Oshima set out to go beyond the constraints of Japan's thriving Roman Pink industry. “In the Realm of the Senses” would be a pornographic depiction of the legendary story of a woman named Sada Abe, who remains a unique folk heroine in Japan. Oshima was also intent on celebrating Japan’s erotic traditions which had been diminished by foreign influences, especially after World War II.
After working for years as a prostitute at the age of 31 the real-life Sade Abe took on a restaurant job in Tokyo where she fell into a torrid affair with its married owner, Kichizo Ishida. The couple's sexually obsessive relationship led to their running away together to stay at various hotels where they could explore their sexuality to its farthest limits. After several weeks Sada brought the affair to an abrupt end when she strangled her lover before severing his genitals. Sada carried her lover’s penis and testicles in her purse until she was caught by police several days after the murder.
In Oshima's formally composed film Eiko Matsuda plays Sada to Tatsuya Fuji's Ishida. Set almost strictly indoors the episodic story gains momentum through increasingly fetishistic sexual games between the lovers, often in the presence of voyeuristic geishas who arrive to entertain or bring food. Several of the geishas fall under the spell of the couple’s sexual activity to become willing or unwilling participants. Sada’s ferocious insatiability comes to dominate Ishida who accepts his place as an ardently willing slave to her sensual desires.
With its juxtaposed camera angles, bright color palate, purposeful foreshadowing, and taboo subject matter “In the Realm of the Senses” builds an inevitable type of suspense not unlike what you experience in a Hitchcock film. That graphic sexual expression is the narrative currency Oshima uses to explicate a connection between sex and death only adds to the film’s incalculable power to provoke, offend, frighten, and spellbind its audience.
Rated NC-17. 109 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)