(aka: Ai No Corrida; Empire Of The Senses; The Realm Of The Senses)
Directed by Nagisa Oshima
Produced by Anatole Dauman
Starring Eiko Matsuda, Tatsuya Fuji, Aoi Nakajima, Yasuko Matsui, Meika Seri, Kanae Kobyashi, Taiji Tonoyama, Kyoji Kokonoe, Naomi Shiraishi
You know the best thing about writing for SGM? It's the proud knowledge of knowing that I can turn around and state that I find Nagisa Oshima's censor plagued work neither shocking, offensive, depraved nor pornographic, full well knowing that there's an audience of readers out there that will agree with me. One needs only cast an eye over the plethora of reviews by online "experts" at the Internet Movie Database for Oshima's film to gauge what the average (conservative) American thought of the film. Words like "disgusting", "very unpleasant", "revolting" and an inference in one capsule review that the characters are "very mentally ill" indicate the exact level of understanding prevalent amongst said "experts", as well as their prudish tolerance for human sexuality in all of its many forms. Well, guess what? Yep, I am no prude, and nor am I so blinkered in my world view that I would ever allow my prejudices to cloud my judgement of fine art. Gone are the days where filmmakers of the calibre of Oshima were given free reign to craft their screen stories without inhibitions, unfettered by the vocalisations of the moral minority who would see that naught but Victorian values are ensconced upon us. It was with a great sense of delight that I finally cast my eyes over an uncensored disc of Oshima's timelessly haunting "In The Realm Of The Senses", a classic of modern erotic cinema.
Based upon the true story of prostitute and (later) housemaid Abe Sada, who had previously been the subject of a film treatment in Noboru Tanaka's "Story Of Abe Sada" for Nikkatsu Studios the previous year (happily available on DVD through Pagan Films under the title "A Woman Called Abe Sada"), Oshima's film concerns itself more directly with the nature of Sada and her lover's relationship. Where Tanaka's film had covered the entire story, albeit within a significantly shorter duration, Oshima covers only the elements of Sada (Matsuda) and Kichi's (Fuji) first meeting through to the final hours of their union. As a housemaid in Kichi's house, Sada finds herself enchanted by his presence, an admiration that becomes mutual in a very short passage of time. Over the course of a few weeks, their sexual couplings become more and more sweaty, obsessive, and adventurous, much to the complete disgust of all around them. By the time their games take a turn into ultimately fatal territory, the outside world has become a fading memory, their senses lost within the intensity of one another's bodies.
Oshima's film is one that leaves opinions divided amidst those who brave its sexually explicit imagery, one camp acclaiming it as a masterful rendition of an obsessive sexual relationship, the other decrying it as pornographic filth masquerading as high art. Polish producer Anatole Dauman took an educated gamble with Oshima's film, having previously worked with countryman Walerian Borowczyk on "Immoral Tales" (1974) and "La Bete" (1975), a film that also enlivened its screen-time with pornographic imagery. Dauman went on to produce films for Volker Schlondorff ("The Tin Drum") and Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas" and "Wings Of Desire") before passing away in 1998, whereas Oshima garnered international recognition with "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" and "Gohatto". However, it is "Senses" that remains the duo's most notorious, and controversial, collaboration. Many find its central plot, of a relationship based solely upon sex, a twisted and giddy descent into total madness, but I guess in final analysis this assumption rides unquestionably on the individual's broad-mindedness. I find the film none of the above.
As both Sada and Kichi are wholly compliant participants, each indulging the other in uninhibited fashion at the end of achieving intense sexual gratification, I fail to see the logic in dismissing their story as one of burgeoning insanity. At no point does either party reject the requests of the other, even when they begin to experiment with asphyxiation to heighten the sexual experience. Admittedly, their relationship traverses darker realms than many would consider "normal", but effectively their relationship displays broader levels of trust than is often acknowledged. Although the on-screen sex is played out for real, albeit in a non-titillating manner, it is conclusively the explicitness of these acts that the viewer will evaluate as either frank honesty, or perverse voyeurism. Effectively still banned in its home country, Oshima was reliant on French producer Argos Films to process his negatives so that he was able to deliver such a daringly explicit production.
The film's leads, Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji, go far beyond the call of their acting duties by being willing to engage in actual on-screen sexual activity for their director, which assuredly shows the great trust they had in Oshima's vision. The fact that both are quite accomplished actors (though Tatsuya only appeared in one other feature film), elevates their actions above and beyond the silicone-and-gym-enhanced "performers" of modern pornography whose raison-de-etre is simply their ability to "perform" on camera. However, the on-screen sex herein is simply a tool for the director to further drive forward his thought-provoking mediation. What does happen once a relationship is disassembled into its primary components, bereft of emotion, leaving just sex and sweating bodies? Oshima augments his strong visuals with haunting mise-en-scene, and a sparse yet melancholic traditional score by Minoru Miki, making this a work that will appeal much more to an arthouse sensibility than those luridly seeking mindless cheap thrills.
Madman's Region 4 disc is a very nice presentation of Oshima's ground-breaking passage in erotic cinema. Although not anamorphically enhanced, it is a newly authored edition prepared from original 35mm film elements that is letterboxed at approximately 1.66 and an exceptionally clean print into the bargain. General image detail is crisp and clear, lending an almost clinical level of clarity to the film's infrequent hardcore sequences. Colours and contrasts are well rendered, even shadow and black levels are handled competently. There are the odd hints of print damage apparent (a few small speckles, the odd scratch and reel change mark), but none are so distracting as to compromise the viewing experience. Having been mastered from a theatrical print, the subtitles are of the embedded (burned-in) variety but are only difficult to read in one short scene near the opening of the film (which lasts less than a minute…but that's my only real complaint!). The brief sequence reframed by the BBFC under the Child Prevention Act is NOT censored in Madman's Region 4 disc.
Audio is the original Japanese language track, which is a welcome change from nearly two decades of only ever having heard the English dub, and is clear as well as relatively free of glitches or distortion. There is some noticeable analogue hiss, inherent in a film of this one's age, but this can be easily compensated by a lower playback volume. Let's be honest, the subdued two channel monaural audio track of Japanese erotica from 1976 isn't going to give your home theatre system a fully blown workout like a big budget Hollywood blockbuster now, is it? All up though, this is probably the definitive DVD edition of this film available for Western audiences at present, as it is an exceptionally well transferred (and completely uncensored) version of the 102 minute French edit.
It has taken some years for Nagisa Oshima's "In The Realm Of The Senses" to finally see the light of day in an uncensored form, without the stigma of a prohibitive X rating. In these (semi) enlightened times it is a pleasure to see such an extraordinary, and bold, work of cinema begin to gain a new acceptance as its director intended it to be seen. Those seeking to peruse the film as "pornography for the arthouse set" will be largely disappointed, as they may find the pace lethargic and the final product somewhat depressing in final summation. Those looking for an uncompromising, and somewhat non-judgmental, portrait of a sexual affair unhindered by the constraints of common-place private inhibitions will find a haunting passage of bold Japanese erotica. If you are similarly open-minded as myself, you should track down Madman's definitive DVD edition forthwith. Online Region 4 specialist EzyDVD (www.ezydvd.com.au) would be as good a place as any to start, providing you are multi-region capable and Customs restrictions aren't prohibitive of the film's importation.
Review by M.C.Thomason
|Released by Madman Entertainment|
|Classified R (18+) - Region 4|
|Running time - 102m|
|Ratio - Widescreeen 1.66|
|Audio - Dolby digital|
|Nagisa Oshima biography, Censorship text, Madman trailers|
|© 2001, Icon In Black Media|