NOTE (2): SPOILERS. If you honestly don’t know how this one ends, stop reading now.
There’s a Bill Hicks routine where he talks about the frustration of watching a pay-per-view porno movie only to find that the adult content has been cut out, so that “you don’t see the woman at all but you do get the hairy bobbing man ass”. Hicks advocates that “I’d leave those fucking scenes in, just for, you know, continuity. I don’t think the plot and dialogue alone are enough to carry these movies.”
Here’s how the continuity works in Nagisa Oshima’s ‘In the Realm of the Senses’:
Or, in only slightly more detail: ex-prostitute Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) begins work at the home of merchant Kichi Ishado (Tatsuya Fuji); they begin an obsessive sexual relationship; Kichi sets her up as his mistress, even conducting a bigamous marriage; Sada becomes increasingly possessive of Kichi, even though she still services the odd client; Kichi and Sada’s lovemaking gets more desperate and violent; they practice auto-eroticism; he dies; she cuts his willy off.
Oh, by the way, it’s based on a true story.
With its scenes of fellatio, penetration, people strangling each other while in flagrante, and something done with a hard-boiled egg that wouldn’t find in Delia Smith’s “Complete Cookery Course”, ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ was, to put it mildly, controversial. Censorship laws in Japan were so draconian at the time of production that even making the film was difficult, let alone showing it. The film was made under the auspices of it being a French production. Footage was sent to France to be developed and edited. When premiered in Japan, the scenes of unsimulated sexual activity were optically altered to blur out the, ahem, man bits and lady bits in a forerunner of pixelating.
Despite finding favour with critics, censorship issues plagued the film outside of Japan. Its initial release in the UK, for instance, meant that it was certified only to be shown at private filmclubs rather than grant it any mainstream distribution. Re-certificated in 1989, it got the 18-rating allowing mainstream distribution and home video certification, but only after a particularly notorious scene was reframed to remove an image that might otherwise have been considered child pornography.
Even with this scene rectified, we still have the gaggle of geishas, turned on by Kichi and Sada’s “honeymoon” exertions, holding down one of their own number, disrobing her and none-too-gently administering a dildo. Or Kichi, seconds after Sada has taken her leave of him, throwing up the skirts of his portly and somewhat matronly housekeeper and, ah, proving himself a back door man.
So: the age old question. Is it art or is it porn? It’s artfully done, certainly. The direction is focussed and controlled, the cinematography atmospheric, the performances very good. Fuji in particular captures the louche charm of an amoral sensualist who gradually abandons everything in his life (and finally his life itself) for the pleasures of the flesh. Matsuda brings an almost frightening intensity to Sada, a lithe and perpetually oversexed creature from the id.
But it’s got the kind of scenes – quite a few of them, actually – that would only have been seen in pornographic films at that period in time. And, frankly, even in today’s post-‘Brown Bunny’, post-‘9 Songs’, post-the-internet-as-a-delivery-system-for-porn climate, ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ still has the power to shock. Yet, put up against your average John Holmes or Nina Hartley starrer, it’s quite clearly a different beast. This isn’t a case of Kichi turns up to fix the plumbing, Sada opens the door dressed in a basque, Kichi unbuckles his toolbelt, Sada slips into something a little more naked and fifteen minutes of bedroom athletics ensue, scored to either a sleazy saxophone solo or the buttock-wobbling sonority of a wah-wah pedal being given some hammer.
‘In the Realm of the Senses’ does investigate the dynamics of extreme dependency in a relationship solely defined by sexual attraction. By the time Sada has taken to strangling Kichi to increase their carnal pleasure, the act seems almost banal. This is Oshima’s great achievement: he realizes that the darker, more painful and more obsessive his protagonists’ sexual relationship gets, the less meaningful the sexual act becomes. Ultimately it means nothing, and Kichi’s butchered penis, against which Sada curls up as the film ends, provides as nihilistic an image as cinema has offered.