In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida) [DVD]
Director : Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay : Nagisa Oshima
MPAA Rating : NC-17
Year of Release : 1976
Stars : Tatsuya Fuji (Kichizo Ishida), Eiko Matsuda (Sada Abe), Aoi Nakajima (Toku), Yasuko Matsui (Tagawa Inn Manager), Meika Seri (Matsuko), Kanae Kobayashi (Old geisha Kikuryû), Taiji Tonoyama (Old Beggar), Kyôji Kokonoe (Teacher Ômiya), Naomi Shiraishi (Geisha Yaeji), Shinkichi Noda (Old Restaurant Man), Komikichi Hori (Mitsuwa Geisha)
Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima has never been a stranger to controversy. As soon as he started directing films in the late 1950s, his leftist political and philosophical bent, not to mention his proclivity for basing his films on scandalous real-life events, got him in trouble with the censors (one of his earliest films, 1960’s Night and Fog in Japan, was pulled out of theaters by its distributor for political reasons). However, his most notorious film is and likely always will be In the Real of the Senses (Ai no corrida), which, along with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) and the 1970s films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, helped to redefine the limits of sexuality in serious-minded international art-house cinema. Unlike Bertolucci and Pasolini’s films, however, In the Realm of the Senses was particularly controversial because its graphic depictions of sexuality flew directly in the face of Japan’s legal restraints on “obscenity,” which is why the film had to be shot quietly and the exposed celluloid processed and edited in France. It is also why the film has still, to this day, never been screened in a fully uncensored form in Japan.
The narrative takes off from a shocking, highly mediated incident that took place in Japan in 1936 in which a prostitute asphyxiated her lover and then cut off his penis and genitals and carried them around with her until she was arrested and prosecuted, after which point she became a notorious icon of either danger or freedom, depending on your perspective. Oshima’s single-minded goal in the film is to depict without restraint or compromise the physically impassioned relationship between the man, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), and the woman, Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda)--what the French would call l’amour fou.
Of course, the literal English translation is “mad love,” which is decidedly less romantic than the French phrase and is in many ways a much better description of what happens in Oshima’s film, which relentlessly catalogues the physical elements of the affair to the detriment of everything else, including the characters’ backgrounds, psychological motivations, personal beliefs, and so forth. All we know is that Kichizo is a married man who hits on all the women who work in the inn he runs with his long-suffering wife and that Sada is a former prostitute. Once they find each other, they spend the next 100 minutes breathlessly and almost tirelessly copulating in various inns, not even pausing when a maid offers to clean the room or a geisha arrives to sing a song or pour sake. In fact, Kichizo and Sada often bring intruding others into their activities, sometimes with their compliance and sometimes against their will. The result is an intensely claustrophobic film, something of which you are not even entirely aware until Oshima gives us one of the few scenes that take place outside in the sunlight, which is more visually shocking than any of its sexual antics.
The overriding interpretation (and inherent justification) of In the Realm of the Senses is that it is a pure, uncomplicated, and therefore challenging depiction of love fully unleashed from social conformity and moral complications. No doubt, Oshima’s decision to film real-life intercourse, rather than simulating it as was done in the more restrained and therefore acceptable Japanese genre of pinka eiga films, draws an immediate line in the sand and guaranteed that his film would function as an attention-grabbing platform for his personal views on obscenity, censorship, and social restraint, particularly in his native country (and it worked--the film was a cause célèbre and resulted in a years-long obscenity trial in which Oshima was eventually acquitted). Interestingly, the fundamental premise of making a hard-core art film was not Oshima’s idea, but rather came from the Polish-born, Paris-based producer Anatole Dauman, who had worked with such French cinematic luminaries as Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais, but at the time was most recently known for producing Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975) by controversial director Walerian Borowczyk (he would go on to work with such German luminaries as Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders).
Ultimately, though, the film’s pedigree is not in question. Rather, the problem is that In the Realm of the Senses works only as an experiment in cinema as social rebellion; it is a perfect test case, and it bears out Oshima’s insistence on the need for taboo breaking, which he clarifies quite eloquently in his treatise “Theory of Experimental Pornographic Film,” which was published in tandem with the film’s release. As a narrative, In the Realm of the Senses doesn’t work at all because there is no narrative. Its momentum is driven entirely by Kichizo and Sada’s increasingly intense sexual experiences, which quickly become as monotonous as bluenoses accuse them of being prurient.
Attempts to intellectualize the film, to read into it all means of social and political allegory and comment, have little to support them outside of Oshima’s own proclamations. For example, many have viewed the film as a statement about Japan’s increasing social restraint and militarism, but this reading is supported largely by a single scene in which Kichizo is passed in the street by a line of marching soldiers. The one social element that is clearly demarcated is the role of gender in traditional Japanese society, which Oshima inverts by slowly allowing Sada to become the dominant figure in the affair who makes the unabashaedly womanizing (and even sexually violent) Kichizo her pawn (it is she who wants to engage in erotic asphyxiation, something he agrees to rather reluctantly, and it is not unimportant that she survives the affair and he does not). This critique is also borne out by the fact that the film’s male star, Tatsuya Fuji, continued his successful career in movies, television, and advertising despite his scandalous role in the film, while its female star, Eiko Matsuda, found little work and eventually left Japan.
Of course, the overriding question for anyone who takes In the Realm of the Senses seriously is: Is it pornography? That is a difficult question to answer because the definition of pornography tends to slip and slide about, depending on who you’re asking, when, and where. For most, the fact that it depicts unsimulated sexual intercourse immediately qualifies it as pornographic. However, in an essay from his forthcoming book Viewing Film, Donald Ritchie makes the point that pornography’s primary goal is sexual arousal, which In the Realm of the Senses does not aim for. There is the unavoidably titillating nature of on-screen nudity and sexuality, but the manner in which Oshima depicts it, particularly his dispassionate, unwavering camera that is much more evocative of Yasujiro Ozu than Gerard Damiano, does nothing to heighten the eroticism. Oshima is cataloging, which ultimately runs counter to the argument that the film is a powerful depiction of love because there is no real love on display. There is physical attraction and chemistry. There is animalistic passion. But, more than anything, there is obsession, and without any sense of these people as human beings with thoughts, ideas, and beliefs beyond how they can intertwine their body parts, In the Realm of the Senses never transcends the physical to embody the ideas to which Oshima and his admirers attribute it.
|In the Realm of the Senses Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||April 28, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new high-definition transfer replaces what I have read was a rather substandard image on the previously available Fox Lorber disc. Criterion’s transfer was made from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. Since the majority of the film takes place in dark interiors, black levels are particularly crucial, and they look great throughout, as do the films various splashes of color, which are rich and vibrant. Detail level is good (the intricate designs on the set walls and kimonos are nicely reproduced), and there is just enough presence of grain to give the image a pleasing filmlike appearance. The Dolby Digital monaural track was transferred at 24-bit from an optical soundtrack negative and digitally restored, and it likewise sounds good, especially the moments of heavy silence that are thankfully bereft of ambient hiss. There is only a minimal amount of music in the film, but what is included sounds sharp and lifelike.|
|Given the film’s obvious notoriety, it is not surprising that Criterion has outfitted this DVD was a wide range of supplements to put it in its proper historical and social contexts. There is a brand-new audio commentary recorded by film scholar and Criterion mainstay Tony Rayns, who spends most of his time discussing the film’s historical importance (he admits early on that he is not a sex expert and therefore will not be commenting on the numerous sex scenes, and the film’s narrative and aesthetic simplicity requires little comment). As always, Rayns proves to be a lively and informative commentator, offering plenty of background and nuance that illustrates why this film is still being discussed more than three decades later. Also on the disc is a 1976 Belgian television interview with director Nagisa Oshima and actors Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda (5 min.), as well as a new interview with Fuji (18 min.), who talks candidly his experiences with the sexually explicit shoot. “Recalling the Film” is a 38-minute retrospective documentary produced in 2003 that features insightful and sometimes amusing interviews with consulting producer Hayao Shibata, line producer, Koji Wakamatsu, assistant director Yoichi Sai, and film distributor Yoko Asakura. Of particular interest is six minutes of footage that was removed by producer Anatole Dauman with Oshima’s blessing to reduce the running time. None of this footage is particularly impressive or would be missed, but it is nice to see it, especially since Criterion puts it in context with the rest of the film by showing the final cut footage before and after the deleted footage in black and white. Finally, the disc includes the original U.S. theatrical trailer and an insert booklet featuring an essay by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie that defends the film against charges of pornography and a reprinted interview with Oshima from 1983 that was originally published in the Japanese magazine Image Forum.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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