In the Realm of the Senses (1976)
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Sada and Ishida share a passion for sex. She (Sada) is the aggressive one, possessive and inflammatory. He is relaxed and submissive, soaking it all up like an opium addict. Indeed, as they gradually spiral into depravity and self-destruction, the whole thing looks not unlike a drug addiction.
The film exercises the mind rather than the body so yes, it's art. Is the sex meant to cause arousal? Sada looks sultry during the sex scenes the pouting lips and dangling hair make it look attractive. Indeed, would there be any point in depicting it graphically if was meant to be dull? Nobody likes dry sex. On the other hand, neither does it play like a porno movie. The sex is intense rather than intimate, and often has disturbing undertones. Various onlookers who witness the couple's performance remain unconcerned at the sight of it. The sex therefore arouses the viewers' senses rather than the libido. This makes it a very sophisticated film indeed.
Whether it is immoral is, as usual, a subjective issue. Many will think so, many will not. A more useful debate is whether graphic sex is necessary to the story. Well, probably not. Other approaches may be just as effective. However, then it would be a different film and you probably wouldn't be here reading this now. Oshima knew that the gruesome fascination of the actual act would keep the film vital, and this amount of simulated sex would have been dreary indeed.
So then, is it successful? Well, partly. Once we have grasped that the film is a focused approach to a monomania, it is not difficult to become immersed in it. On the other hand, sex is essentially a repetitive thing and the film frequently finds itself on the rocks of repetition. But Oshima does not compromise, despite that he must know that each new scene is apt to bring forth a slight groan. This is not to say that the director suffered a major lapse of judgment, but probably most people would admit that substituting some of these scenes for others that provide more depth to the characters and their lives would have helped the narrative enormously.
It does largely hang together. Sada's descent into 'realm of the senses' (or the 'bullring of love' as the title may be read in Japanese) is depicted with perfect force and clarity. One does not doubt the couple are very much in love. Also, Sada's outrageous sexual appetite is genuine: in an early enigmatic scene she offers herself to a tramp, showing both her sexual 'sympathy' as well as her perverse tastes. The tramp is no match for her however, and his own member is cowed into submission. The first hint of her power.
When Sada is not having sex with Ishida (which is not often) she is in bed with a client, an old intellectual. Here she learns to connect sex with pain as an extension of her mental torment in missing her lover. Later, with Ishida, pain becomes an extension and an enhancement of sex itself.
Things then start to get bizarre. Sada dips food into her vagina before feeding it to Ishida while a geisha sits close by playing a shamisen. She makes him have sex with an old woman Ishida cannot resist the challenge and the conflicting emotions of horror and fascination that play on her face as she looks on is one of the most stunning scenes of the film. Eventually, even the geishas begin to scorn the couple's never-ending frolicking. This is a warning that all is not well, and the couple deal with it characteristically: she becomes aggressive, he laughs it off. However, we are now on a judgemental path. Things become increasingly intense and claustrophobic as the couple gradually experiment deeper and deeper in their ecstasy. Once they have reached the extremity of life, they start to flirt with death.
Ishida is the more complex character, urbanely playing along with Sada's demands while sometimes showing just a hint of doubt and restraint. Passion for him has a tender side (he says the old woman reminded him of his mother) and he gradually reveals a fatalism that suggests a vague depression. Finally, he yields himself completely to the Sada's suffocating passion which leads to his (now inevitable) destruction.
The role of children in the film, although slight, is perhaps unnecessary and regrettable, and the ending is marred by an abrupt stentorian voice-over which gives the impression that the film suddenly considers itself to be a documentary. Overall, however, this is an intense, beautifully made motion picture which craves indulgence and patience but is very rewarding, if only out of its sheer uniqueness.
For a film which contains 90% fornication, there is plenty to think about.
The film is flavored with strange yet genuinely humorous moments For example, an older lady chance upon the lovers, andfor the fun of itthe young man initiates a ménage à trois The incident proves to be so exhilarating that the old woman dies from exhaustion... The scene is played with such vivacity and intensity thatdespite the fatal outcomeit does have a strange humorous overtone to it
Director Nagisa Oshima developed with great care all the minor details of this affair without ever becoming overbearing or intending to teach...
Is it "serious"? Yes. Is it voyeuristic and prurient? Yes. Is it a masterpiece? Not quite. Is it worth watching? Very much so. In fact I'd say it was essential viewing for anyone interested in extreme or taboo-breaking movies.
The Seventies were the decade where the boundaries of screen sex, violence and disturbing imagery were repeatedly stretched. Peckinpah's 'Straw Dogs' and 'Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia', Bertolucci's 'Last Tango In Paris', Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver', Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange',were all milestones, and the the art movies of Herzog, Warhol, Pasolini, and Jodorowsky battled it out with the horror and exploitation of Russ Meyer, Dario Argento, John Waters,and David Cronenberg. Add to that the unexpected crossover success of 'Deep Throat' and the very existence of shockers like 'Ilse, She Wolf Of The SS' and 'Cannibal Holocaust', and what do you get? The artificial and meaningless divisions of genres, "high art" vs "trash", new ways of thinking vs new ways of making money, it was all on the table. For one brief decade it looked like a brave new world.
Then everything that was gained was lost - Spielberg and Simpson/Bruckheimer cleaned up (financially and aesthetically), and things have never been the same since. Watch 'Empire Of The Senseless' with that in mind. It may be flawed - you'll be alternatively fascinated and bored - but it is an important movie from an important period in movie history.
The subtle political content/context of the film is often overlooked - some of the few scenes shot outside the bedroom show groups of soldiers marching the other way from the direction our characters travel - and we all know where the rising Japanese militarism and nationalism of the 1930's led.
I think the best comparison is probably with a film like "Last Tango in Paris" which dealt with similar themes in a similar way - and was probably also pretty boring for those with a short attention span.
In fact, if you see an uncut version of this film, you are in essence watching pornography. That is, you are watching incredibly graphic sexual content that simply would not be allowed in an American film. I won't spell it out for you, but I will say this...do you know what they can't show you in American movies? This one shows that. And quite a bit more. This is not the type of sex you would see in a film like "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" or "Bliss" or some of the other decent American films about sex (though I can't think of any others). This is more like the sex shown in "Last Tango in Paris." The characters are so self-destructive and dangerous that the sex (one of the most inherent of all human practices) becomes an expression of their inhumanity. This is not easy stuff. But if you are willing to find an uncut version and experience the true power of this film, you may find yourself moved by the things you see.
This film blurs the line between pornography and art, and I believe that it stays one inch to the art side, but decide for yourself. Either way, I think that it is about time for American films to truly explore that distinction.
Yet it is not turgid or depraved; it is not repugnant or diabolical. It is a poetic voyage into the unknown. It is about the search for pure fulfillment and pleasure. Nothing else in the world presented matters, reality is discarded. And thus the cause for the tragedy which ensues.
The two protagonists separate themselves from all that is real for they know that to find true happiness they must transcend all levels of reality and consciousness to a mighty plane. But such a place is transient. Yet the few glorious moments in such a world are worth any heartache that follows.
It was a film ahead of its time and I believe that it is still. The sparse few in the audience snickering and snorting confirmed this. It is one of those films whose reputation has preceded it and is so well known in Arthouse circles that disappointment may be said to be inevitable. But this film lives up to its reputation. For it is a truly explicit and daring film as it challenges the common perception that happiness is conformity. It proposes that true happiness is unobtainable in this world and to gain it you must sacrifice the flesh, to forward and improve the soul.
Yet this film made twenty-four years ago has been forgotten in the industry for where is its influence, its mark? Few films have used pornography in such a way since. And sex is still relegated to the flea-pit cinemas and backstreet shops. Arthouse films which depict sex, even those which do so explicitly, present it as the result of the character's exploration or development. As a curiosity, or as symbolic of the ascension of a particular player. Corrida uses sex to forward the plot, to illustrate the personalities of its protagonists, to symbolize everything in their fragile society. Sex is the plot development, sex is the key player and sex is the message. The sex takes centre stage. Each new scene is the result of sex, not vice versa.
This truly original concept has never taken hold. Why not? Surely the Arthouse circuit would realize the potential and milk it dry. And yet Corrida and a handful of others are the only films to take advantage.
This is why Ai No Corrida is a masterpiece. The acting, the direction, script etc... are all brilliant. But the ideas and concepts and invention are what makes Corrida one of the most superb films ever made. A film unknown except to those in the Arena. A film which took no hold, was as distant and mysterious as the world it depicted. A fleeting landmark that should have shook the world; but, maybe rightly, will always remain a forgotten treasure.
Shot with vibrant colors and often eye popping set design, the film tells a simple and tragic tale of two lustful lovers engaged in a relationship fueled by unstoppable erotic desires. Fearlessly, the film manages to portray acts of masochism and sexual "perversion" in a manner so frequent and provocative there is no wonder why it has caused so much argument and controversy. This is, without a doubt, an EXTREME film that features everything from eating food from a woman's vagina to an elderly lady being f*cked to LITERAL DEATH! This film is not afraid to drag the viewer along, slowly lowering them into the pits of "sexual Hell". It portrays the passionate relationship in a psychologically tormenting manner, one that surpasses the bloodiest slasher flick in terms of true horror. This is not a "fun" film to watch, and is no doubt not for most audiences; but those that can handle and look past the strong and sometimes flat out gross content will find a gemstone of cinematic erotica, psychological drama, and unconventional horror.
I'm dissappointed that most reviewers can't look past the sexual content in this film, even its advocates. Everyone simply states their opinion on whether or not it is art or pornography, as if it were some kind of ideological testing ground, an experiment. This is in fact a disservice. Oshima is not interested in pushing buttons. He is not interested in making arguments for or against sex in the cinema. Ai no Corrida is refreshingly liberated from all such considerations: it simply is.
Based on true events, the story follows the relationship of a nobleman and a mentally unstable servant who falls in love with him. The attraction between them is so strange that soon they are inseperable, in more ways than one. While other servants look on, bringing them food, playing music and even sometimes participating, the two lie naked in bed having almost constant sex.
In the hands of a lesser director this would be disaster but Oshima never sensationalizes the material. This is not to say the film is not explicit; it is. It contains perhaps the most explicit sexual images in the history of cinema. However it is all presented with such care and beauty that it makes the viewing of sex and the act itself seem natural.
Few films have ever been this intimate. We almost never leave the bedroom. Even as the other servants express disgust or begin to gossip about the couple, so entrenched are we in their world that it phases us even less than it does them. The actors perform their own scenes and everything we see is real. Sada and Kichizo's relationship is physical in a way that few people here could ever understand. In the west we associate love and the development of character with words, but this has never been the case in Asia. For them it less about arousal than a complete need for the other person. By making their bodies one and achieving mutual pleasure they each achieve ultimate knowledge. Language is an afterthought.
In fact, I would almost recommend watching Ai no Corida without subtitles. The plain naturalism of the spoken Japanese achieves a kind of unintended camp when put into English text. This aspect is not aided by Argos video's TERRIBLE translation, which feels like it was written+ by a cheap dimestore erotic novelist who has fallen full prey to orientalism. The bare intensity of the performances is spoiled. Words are exaggerated and are in some cases just plain wrong. *spoiler* Even worse, they did not translate the Kanji which is written on Kichizo's body at the end and the way it features prominently into the shot leads me to believe something important has been missed. * end spoiler* Until a better translation is available, you might be better off knowing Japanese before watching this. I have no doubt that many people's anger over this movie is an unintended bi-product of these misguided efforts.
Oshima looks on in compassion as the "obsession" of this couple begins to grow in strange and potentially dangerous ways. Again contrary to what most people have said about the movie, I do not believe it is intended as a morality play. In the west it seems to me that any "art" which features explicit sex must be seen as a condemnation of that act in order to be accepted. I think Ai no Corrida has something different on its mind. There is a quick but essential scene in which the two discuss their parents: Kichizo's mother died when he was very young and Sada was orphaned before she was 3. Here we get a brief glimpse at the pathos beneath their relationship. They are afraid. To let up for even a second is oblivion.
To me it seemed as though Sada's final acts were not accidental. I feel there was a mutual acknowledgement of where their relationship was headed and they were both ready for it. These two human beings were already destroyed. They found a brief escape from pain in eachother and enjoyed that escape to its fullest extent, with the knowledge that nothing lasts forever. Though there are moments of madness and cruelty during the escalation of their acts, the ending seems almost matter of fact. It is not performed in the heat of passion but slowly, with an air of regretful inevability, underscored by the use of closeups and Minoru Miki's haunting music.
Again, Oshima's gift: the ability to find humanity in the strangest of places. Ai no Corrida is not a film which condemns or exploits. Instead it is a profoundly sad, uncathartic evocation of deep loneliness. These two people needed eachother so much that they would rather be consumed by that need than continue "normal" life in a "normal" world. Disturbing? Yes, but isn't everything?
After having viewed it recently again, and this time focusing more on the intrinsic value of the film rather than just on the shocking images alone like I had the first time I viewed it, I was surprised to find a dark, disturbing psychological drama about sexual obsession that really held my interest. It is interesting to note how the male and female leads, who both seem emotionally sterile to the world around them and are barely communicative towards one another in the traditional and normal sense, are inseparably bonded by a strange and sexual attraction they have for eachother. It is a fatal attraction of the darkest kind I've ever witnessed in a movie.
This movie is definitely not for all tastes or who are easily offended by graphic scenes of sex. But for those adventurous souls looking for something different and interesting, I recommend this film. Nagisa Oshima's other films of interest are Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and the recent Taboo.
Despite the violent nature of the film, and the fact that it is based on a true event, I cannot think of another film that so truly captures the intensity of any emotional and sexual relationship at some point in its incarnation. If you have ever felt love and desire at their most powerful - the wish not to possess someone, but to become part of them and share with them how they experience the world - then you will recognize that feeling here. While certainly not a map for any relationship you might wish to have (I pray!), this film says more about what it means to be a man or woman than any other film I have seen.
As others have commented, the real-life case of 'Abe Sada' (Abe is the family name) was very well known in Japan, occurring as it did almost 40 years before Oshima made this film. There are at least two other cinematic versions of the events. If anything, reality was even a bit stranger than fiction: in the real-life case Abe was arrested whilst carrying around the severed member in her kimono sash. I saw a photograph of her once, taken just after her arrest: you have never seen a more haunted-looking woman.
The original Japanese title of the film is 'Ai no Corrida,' 'Ai' means 'love', but, interestingly, 'Corrida' is not a Japanese word at all: it's a Spanish word meaning 'dash' 'sprint' or 'spurt', and is most often used in the expression 'Corrida de Toros' -- i.e. bullfight -- strongly alluding to the brutal (and inevitable) death of the bull at the end. This puts quite a different complexion on the theme of the film than does the Western distributor's title of 'In the Realm of the Senses' which seems to imply sensual pleasure which has perhaps unintentionally got out of hand.
Oshima's stock-in-trade has always been the 'shocking' film, usually made with the aim of confronting 'bourgeois' sensibilities or an accepted view of society or history. In the 1960's they were more of the socio-political variety (e.g. 'The Sun's Burial,' 'Cruel Story of Youth'); but the success of this film firmly added the sexual element to his repertoire; you can see this continues even up to the recent film 'Gohatto.' In my mind, however, 'Ai no Corrida' is the only one of his films that really works.
The movie is based on a true story that happened in the 30's, where Sada Abe erotically asphyxiated her lover, Kichizo Ishida, during sex, and them cut it out his penis and testicles to walk on streets of Tokyo with his organs in her hand.
Many of the sexual scenes between the actors are real, by the way.
The plot: Abe Sada works as a maid in a hotel. She is an ex prostitute. When Abe meets the hotel owner Kichizo, they begin to have an intense affair, and while the time passes, Abe starts to have an obsessive behavior towards Kichizo to the point that she even threatens to kill him. The things between them are going to reach tragical consequences near the end.
Both forces essentially fighting till the death or at least holding on for dear life. This film is basically taking love and putting it on heroin. It is showing us the dependency, the loneliness, the pain, the absurdities, the withdrawal, the addiction of it. The film works at desensitizing the senses. This film is forcing us to give our definition of love.
The film demands us to look past the themes of the average love story. While the censors are busy looking for their scissors, the film nudges the viewer to begin questioning the definition of love/sex. The director tries to answer with rhetorical questions about the event. What could possess a couple to have sex for a whole week for it only to lead up to a severed penis? How did they get to that point? Wouldn't it have gotten kind of boring after awhile?
The actual sex acts shock the average viewer at first yet the longer we stay along for the ride the less we pay attention to it. Is sex about love or is love about sex?
Both. Yet I wouldn't call this pornography, nor would I call Hollywood love stories 'love stories'. Pornography implies the act of sex without feelings. This film fails to live up to that definition by showing us more than a small share of emotion behind all the grunts and moans. Sex is merely the background vehicle to this Japanese monster truck of a journey. Oshima wants you to walk away without any doubts at what happened during that week.
Getting over the skin of the fruit and right to the juice of it you will find that after digesting it, that this film is essentially a commentary about the bounds of love. Probably tasting something like durian.
Either way, and here is the important point, the film has an important point to make. There are people, actions and rules in our world that do not deserve respect, adherence and all these matters are subjective and subject to individual choice. Just because I believe in one thing it does not follow that someone else must live their life according to that point-of-view. All options are on the table.
In The Realm Of Senses clearly tries to insult and shock as many people as possible to make a point. The point is well made and the majority of viewers (or would-be viewers) would be aghast at the work. It is the beauty of the film. As for the nudity, inn, infidelity and the geisha those are actually incidental to the story. yet, I say if you enjoy them then more power to you.
Released on DVD by both the BFI and Criterion, and included in the book '1001 Films To See Before You Die', In The Realm Of The Senses is clearly highly regarded by many film experts who see it not as pornography but as an important work of erotic art. I'm not convinced that the film is anything other than a case of flagrant exploitation—beautifully shot with fine performances, but still no more deserving of critical acclaim than your average sex-fuelled pink movie.
Watch it before you die, by all means, but don't expect anything more thought provoking than 109 minutes of repetitive unsimulated shagging, with a little bit of fun with a boiled egg, some winkie-tugging, and a gory finale for good measure.
There's a narrative here, told through the slowly-unfolding patterns of debauchery, one of a terrifying spiral of hedonism. In the end, despite all of its explicitness, it's more of a conservative cautionary tale than anything else.
What makes In The Realm of the Senses work as well as it does is the beautiful images and almost mystical pacing of director Oshima. I won't lie and say that there aren't times when the film is tedious and even dull, or that its final conclusion is extremely profound. But it's one hell of an experience, and a disgusting gonzo film that needed to be made. It's one of those films that you don't watch, you live through.
This film is easy to dismiss as "glorified porn" or something of that nature. Indeed, it tends to go beyond what we call soft-core... there is no hiding the male anatomy and some acts are rather explicit. And yet, I never really felt like the film was "dirty" or gratuitous.
There is something to be said about love, sex, obsession and the life of a geisha. Certainly in western society we find it hard to believe a prostitute or porn star could have a meaningful relationship or be in love. What of the Japanese, who view prostitution somewhat differently? This is an interesting exploration.