Canon Entry - In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
In the Realm of the Senses’ original title in Japanese translates to Bullfight of Love, a far more accurate and evocative description of the film than the vaguely pretentious and unhelpfully generic title the French slapped onto Nagisa Oshima’s masterpiece. The two characters at the center of the film, Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), have a combative yet suffocatingly (no pun intended) codependent relationship with each other. Much of their relationship is about pushing boundaries, mostly sexually. To say their relationship flies in the face of all social mores is an understatement as they venture into more and more taboo sexual acts the deeper their relationship grows.
Director Oshima wasn’t necessarily breaking new ground when he decided to cover the story of Sada Abe. She was something of a folk hero, after she had been found carrying around her lover’s severed genitalia, perhaps because Japan is not known for the intense individuality of its people but rather its conformity and maintenance of certain social norms. Her romantic erotic obsession and frank sexuality inspired movies and books about her; Oshima’s movie was not the first nor the last about her life.
Oshima’s main distinction for Senses is that he uses explicit sex in his movie. Oshima has gone on at length about his reason to film this way, but it essentially boils down to his definition of obscenity. He argues that obscenity is about the unseen rather than the the seen and that displaying an explicit sexual act makes it less taboo and part of the human experience. He argued that pornography be made available (one would assume to an intelligent, thoughtful public) so that people can see their desires displayed on screen and be liberated, instead of having to undergo sexual repression and the drawbacks that come with such a condition.
Obviously, Oshima’s statement needs a lot of context and supplementing to be taken seriously (Issues of safety, consent, etc.). Also, if Oshima wanted to pick a story that normalized certain sexual behavior by eliminating secrecy, he really picked an odd story to achieve these particular goals. In Senses, the characters are very much opposed to the world, finding solace and satisfaction, sexual and otherwise, only in each other. They deliberately goad each other to push sexual boundaries, and they certainly do not try to proselytize other people into having healthy sexual attitudes.
They are creatures of deep appetites that use the people around them like so many objects. Sada supports the two of them by sleeping with a wealthy man. Kichizo’s first approach to Sada and, later, other women is typically gruff and non-consensual. They are not pleasant or “good” people even if you disregard their sexual trysts. They are deeply self-involved, content to live in a hermetically sealed environment in which only the two of them and their bodies exist.
In a strange way, the only people who are really meant to derive pleasure from their interaction are themselves, definitely not the audience. Even the sex itself is very specifically not designed to titillate, despite its explicit nature. Oshima favors long and medium shots that puts the viewers at a distance. It is clear that his film is not pornography since pornography geared towards straight males would simply objectify the female and make her look as good as possible. Oshima, however, often films his actors with both clearly present in the frame and often with no visible penetration, with some very striking exceptions, of course.
What Oshima achieves in what is basically a melodrama between two people in which sex happens to be a component is a wide-ranging criticism of Japanese society. There is a striking shot of Kichizo on his way to one of his trysts with Sada in which a Japanese regiment is marching down a street. He is walking in the opposite direction of the regiment, paying no mind to them. His dismissal is Oshima’s act of rebellion. The film takes place in 1936, which would be the year that Japan would fully lean into its fascistic tendencies. The casualties of any fascist government are individualism, freedom of expression, and freedom of choice. What Japan would become was clearly not a society that the couple at the center of this film would thrive in.
One of the societal norms that Realm touches on more obliquely, but I think no less powerfully, is the role of sex itself. In Japanese society and in other Western societies, sex has gone from mostly taboo to becoming mostly commercialized. Even if explicit sex is consigned to the realm of pornography, the commercialization of sex is everywhere, from a perfume ad in a magazine to even the most mundane social media accounts. There is no real need for fascism to keep people under control when consumerism can do the job while making a tidy profit.
In Realm, the last thing that these people want to do is to share their special, carnal bond with anyone. It is a deeply selfish thing that they do, but it also highly individualistic and rebellious and a rejection of oppressive societal norms that cut off people from their true natures for the sake of decorum and order. Though the film ends tragically, Oshima frames the death more as a release from mundane concerns, with Sada Abe as some sort of twisted fallen angel that chooses to release her lover from his earthly bonds.