By Peggy Nelson
In the Realm of the Senses – dir. Nagisa Oshima – 1976
Nagisa Oshima’s tale of sexual obsession, In the Realm of the Senses, retains the power to shock despite being over 30 years old. Based on a true story, the film concerns one Sada Abe, found wandering the streets of 1936 Tokyo with her lover’s severed penis in her hand, who upon her arrest became a media sensation and folk heroine. Realm features non-simulated sex between the actors, BDSM, graphic violence, and other controversial elements that may or may not appear depending on what version you’re viewing, and where you’re viewing it. Widely banned upon release, it is perhaps Oshima’s best-known film.
Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) is a prostitute-turned-maid, and Kichizo “Kichi” Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) is the owner of the Tokyo hotel where she works. They start an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming, and ends in obsession, mutilation and murder. The Spanish title for the film, Ai No Corrida, or Bullfight of Love, perhaps more accurately reflects the violence in the theme.
Sex occupies a strange place in film generally. The portrayal of graphic sexual activity is, even today, something rare outside of hardcore pornography. The comparison is often made between sex and violence in film: both are disturbing subjects, yet the former is still censored while the latter is so prevalent as to be unavoidable. Oshima sought to directly challenge this censorship with Realm (and again in 1978, with Empire of Passion).
Oshima was influenced in his choice of visual style by shunga, a type of ukiyo-e or Japanese woodblock print that portrays sexual scenes with anatomical precision. Shunga were often beautifully composed works of art by ukiyo-e masters, featuring couplings of great variety and sometimes humor, and are valued for their aesthetic as well as erotic qualities. This combination of the aesthetic and the erotic is present as well in Realm. With its rich colors and textures, and carefully arranged scenes, the film fetishizes fabric almost as much as it does exposed skin.
The heavy aestheticism also contributes to the film’s rhythm, which starts slowly and then decelerates. The danger in re-enacting prints is that the scenes may feel more like a series of tableaux vivants rather than a film. But this lethargy is intentional. As their relationship develops, the characters turn more and more inward, consumed by their obsession. In one scene, Kichi (on one of his rare forays outside their room) slowly stumbles in the other direction past a military parade, so absorbed in his personal problems as to not notice the soldiers. In 1936 Japanese imperial aggression against China was well underway, gearing up for full-scale war the next year. The inclusion of the military parade almost as an afterthought, ignored by the characters, shows the extent to which their grip on reality has become lessened. The danger with any obsession is that the single-minded focus can limit the variety and scope of life until it absorbs it completely, to the detriment of those so consumed, as well as the society that contains them.
Sada drives the narrative, and her obsession drives her. Once she has had a taste of Kichi she becomes insatiable, and he is all too happy to go along with it, until it is too late. Neither of them give up their other affairs — he is married, and she maintains at least one long-term client who funds their sexual retreat — but she soon becomes extremely jealous. Her desire quickly spirals out of control, so she desires to control its object. And as the focus shifts from sex to obsession, the activating force shifts from lust to power. Not content with marathon love-making sessions, Sada steals Kichi’s clothes to ensure he does not leave the room when she goes out to visit her sugar daddy. She becomes obsessed with his wife, whom he sees occasionally but not very enthusiastically, and she starts threatening to kill him: first in the grip of a jealous rage, but then more and more often, until it becomes normalized in both of their minds.
But as the kill impulse becomes normalized, the sex goes in the other direction. Sada insists on being beaten, on exhibitionism, on bondage, on asphyxiation; until, more ominously, she repeatedly introduces a knife or other sharp implement that she only reluctantly releases.
There is also the problem, for the viewer, of narrative fatigue. Close to Warholian in its use of repetition, Realm is almost forced to investigate more extreme sexual practices just to offer something new to look at, and to give a sense that the story is actually going somewhere. Because it is going somewhere. Unlike Alain Robbe-Grillet’s explorations of the eroticism of stasis, Oshima is ultimately interested in psychology. As in many of his films that are based on true stories, Oshima here seeks to understand the motivations of individuals in extremis.
Looking less geisha-like and more demonic as her obsession consumes her, Sada pushes through to its inevitable violent denouement, as Kichi, exhausted past resistance, seemingly gives his permission for the final act. Wanting to get higher and higher, she requires more and more and is less and less satisfied, Kichi being the heroin to her heroine. Which leads us to the final troubling issue: since her arrest, the fascination with Sada has gone beyond that of a sensationalistic crime. Sada’s story has been claimed by both the left and the right, as a stand against patriarchal tyranny and as an argument for stronger family values. Oshima uses it to fight censorship. But he also includes a larger social critique. Sada’s story is a cautionary tale against the dangers of interiority. With obsessive inward focus, personal values become distorted, while equally destructive social trends go unrecognized, like soldiers on parade. In terms of social critique, Oshima is not afraid to go all the way.