In the Realm of the Senses
|Madman Entertainment/AV Channel .
R4 . COLOR . 102 mins .
R . PAL
If cinema is to be regarded as a serious art form - and, to paraphrase Swiss surrealist H. R. Giger, view the medium as the modern equivalent of the expressionist paintings of the 19th century - then it needs to constantly evolve in order to maintain credibility and, more importantly, integrity. As demonstrated by the recent spate of mediocre films stemming out of Hollywood, the failure or the inability to innovate - thus invigorate - the motion picture results in the stagnation of artistry and the suffocation of ideals. Writers and directors must exceed the
limitations of their craft and break into new and often dangerous ground, even if it means tackling subjects that are taboo to society.
Perhaps the most effective manner in which a film-maker can test the boundaries of social tolerance is through the depiction of celluloid sex - no doubt, one of the last great taboos. Directors such as Frank Ripploh (Taxi zum Klo, 1981) and Catherine Breillat (Romance, 1998)
have made it their duty, it seems, to challenge the “Mary Whitehouse establishment,” who stipulate that it is not only immoral, but obscene, to portray the intricate facets of human sexuality on screen in the most graphic and realistic way possible - through actual, not simulated,
sexual activity. These aforementioned films are prime examples within the arthouse circuit of what many cynics regard as simply high-brow pornography for the champagne set - porn hiding behind the guise of respectability.
The lines between hardcore pornography and artistic expression became considerable blurred with the release of Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s 1975 film Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses), a motion picture that redefined the limits of what was socially acceptable and was both lauded and vilified for its explicit sexual depictions. Indeed, so heated was the debate over its content, the film was banned in most countries upon its initial theatrical release and, where
restrictions allowed, shown in modified form with three of its crucial scenes cut. But now, 25 years after the initial furore, Madman Entertainment have produced in Australia what is certainly the definitive version of this controversial work.
The deleted scenes have been reinserted, so that the film can now be presented as Oshima had intended - in its expurgated form, preserved for prosperity on DVD.
It is often stated that Oshima’s prime intention with In the Realms of the Senses was to challenge and, hopefully, shatter the restrictions imposed by Japan’s stringent obscenity laws. If he wished to propagate provocation among film critics and the movie-going public alike, than the director succeeded beyond his wildest expectations; however, his infamy was to exact a potentially high price. Despite the illusion that the picture is a Japanese production with a Japanese director and cast, In the Realm of the Senses - as with its companion piece, Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion) - was, in fact, a French co-production: in order to capture the film’s explicit hardcore nature, Oshima was required to turn to a French producer.
Almost clandestinely, Oshima shot the picture in Japan, then shipped the undeveloped cans of film to France, where it could be processed to avoid potential problems with the Eirin censors. No doubt aware of the controversy he was about to create, there are indications that Oshima himself
was somewhat perturbed by the howls of indignation he and his film produced in the wake of its release. Soon after its German premiere at the “Berlinale,” the picture was confiscated on the basis of its supposed pornographic content; however, in a dramatic about-face 18 months later, In the Realm of the Senses was permitted - on order of the German federal court - to be screened without cuts.
In Australia, the picture has had an equally traumatic history, commencing with its 12 month ban after screening at the 1976 Melbourne and Sydney International Film Festivals intact. Yet, on subsequent releases, In the Realm of the Senses suffered unceremonious cuts; in the early 1980s, the film was selectively released in Australia with an R certificate, but without the inclusion of
three critical scenes which were removed by the censorship board. To add insult to injury, the picture contained a dubbed English soundtrack - it was this mutilated version that reached the home entertainment market, and was widely distributed on video cassette. But in Britain, until 1992, cinemas exhibited the unexpurgated film.
Taking into account the age of the film and its long history of varying classification decisions in Australia and internationally, the classification board of the Office of Film and Literature Classification granted In the Realm of the Senses an R18+ rating in 2001. This judgment was made, it seems, in direct correlation to the board’s recent overturning of the censorship issue applied to Catherine Breillat’s Romance. According to the board’s report on Oshima’s film, it said: “Recent debates establish that the community is prepared to be tolerant of strong classifiable elements so long as the film is one of integrity and substance... The board also considered the
limited audience it is likely to attract given that it is a Japanese tragedy, in subtitles, set within a particular historical period.”
The film was shown in Japan with its objectionable scenes airbrushed. The obscenity charges levelled against Oshima originated indirectly from the publication in his native country of a book about In the Realm of the Senses which contained still photographs and script excerpts from the film. As a consequence, Oshima was placed on trial and faced with imprisonment, but, after a long, arduous battle over the film’s integrity and artistic value, the director was acquitted in 1982. However, it must be mentioned that - according to the Internet Movie Database - the picture is reported to have been issued a censorship ban in Japan, making it illegal to purchase or
exhibit the film. But this cannot be properly verified.
|"My body is yours. Do as you like."|
Based on a true incident that occurred in Japan in 1936 and mortified its people to its cultural core, In the Realm of the Senses can be viewed as a perverse love story, a clinical study into sexual obsession, or - as it is suggested throughout the film - a subliminal glimpse in the Japanese psyche, where cemented tradition is often at odds with revolutionary new ideals and, more importantly, individualism. This latter assumption would certainly befit the paradoxical themes which run throughout all of Oshima’s films. At the film’s beginning though, it seems that beneath
the facade of cultural unification, lies a hint of simmering conflict in Japanese society between social etiquette and personal freedom as the nation prepares for the inevitable arrival of the Second World War.
Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a former prostitute, is the new servant girl to be employed by Toku (Aio Nakajima), the enigmatic proprietor of a Japanese whorehouse. Sada reluctantly accepts her position - not out of personal whim, but because of necessity, as she is burdened with the need to pay off her bankrupt husband’s insurmountable debts. She becomes intimate with the brothel-keeper’s husband, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), when she adopts the guise of a prostitute after having witnessed him and Toku engage in acts of sexual passion. Arrogant, chauvinistic, but
charismatic, Kichizo becomes first intrigued then infatuated with Sada, whose sexual appetites are as voracious as his.
A relationship founded purely on illicit sex is a perilous one, and the ground on which theirs is based shifts dramatically throughout Oshima’s story. From frivolous - even sweet - beginnings, Kichizo exercises his rights in Japanese male-dominated society, taking Sada for his mistress in an intense relationship where their lust is unchecked - their passion is all-consuming, so much so
that they frequently copulate within the presence of the house servants, oblivious to everything except each other. But their mutual insatiability adopts a darker, more sinister, tone as Sada becomes increasingly dependent on Kichizo’s penis.
Soon, in an ironic twist, Kichizo is deregulated from master to wanton slave - no longer does he attain any true empowerment; instead, Sada begins to objectify Kichizo as nothing more than an appendage, referring to his penis as “him.”
Kichizo’s dominance dissipates when Sada assumes control, taking their relationship into the realms of sadomasochism, where they both begin to experiment with erotic asphyxiation - the practice of choking off one’s breathing during the sex act in order to heighten the intensity of
orgasm. Kichizo’s situation is one of mortal danger as Sada, jealous of sharing her lover with Toku, demands that he halt sleeping with his wife. The consequences should he fail to do so will be catastrophic for him, for Sada’s intentions are to immediately castrate Kichizo should she
discover that he has been “unfaithful” to her. Inevitably, this development results in a shockingly violent climax that many will find nigh-impossible to watch.
In the Realm of the Senses is presented in its original screen aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is not anamorphic.
It should be mentioned that there is evidence the transfer has been lifted from an original theatrical print, due to the perceptible instances where reel change rings appear throughout the film in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Therefore, while it may not be considered to be
of pristine condition when compared to other films of similar vintage, this version of In the Realm of the Senses is allegedly superior to that of the one distributed in Region 1; according to reports there, the picture’s colour palette is bleached and the frame flickers constantly. Not so with Madman Entertainment’s effort - Hideo Itoh’s cinematography appears rich and vibrant,
exhibiting beautiful saturation that belies the film’s age.
Flesh tones are warm and, again, wonderfully realised. Whilst the ornate costumes with their lurid sashes and the exquisitely regal interiors of the Japanese household are swathed in ceremonial colour, there is no discernible hint of bleeding or oversaturation - even when the screen is inundated in darkness.
Herein lies a small problem: Although black levels are solid, there seems to be a tendency for them to be too dark at times - particularly within the film’s early scenes, such as where Sada meets an old street beggar (Taiji Tonoyama) who staggers past the whorehouse in need of a
sexual favour; this scene, as with some others, is predominately black with an almost inky appearance that obscures a fair amount of detail. However, it is possible to somewhat alleviate this situation via the adjustment of the brightness of the screen. Yet, when the film’s focus centers on its two protagonists and their intimate surroundings - which is the bulk of the picture - the
black levels tend to admirably support the colour palette.
Details are sharp, providing moments of excellent definition - of particular note is the intricate
designs on the sliding partition door at 10:13, which do not exhibit any aliasing, shimmering, etc. Whether it be facial features, interior decor, the extravagant kimonos - all benefit from the transfer’s sharpness. Shadow detail is poor; there seem to be no major issues relating to either
aliasing or moiré. Nonetheless, there is a contentious point regarding the white embedded English subtitles where they are sometimes difficult to read against the bright backgrounds present near the picture’s beginning; fortunately, this is a rare occurrence and does not seem to
affect the rest of the film.
There is no evidence of MPEG artefacts or perceptible film-to-video artefacts, and film artefacts are at a minimum. Although there are a couple of notable moments where print damage is visible, taking the form of what appears to be either severe scratches or, more likely, tears - a noticeable instance occurs at 1:23:31 in the lower right-hand corner - they are fleeting and do not warrant too much concern. As to be expected with a film that is 25 years old, there is minor grain throughout but it is not intrusive.
There is only one audio selection available: the Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. Being a dedicated purist and a connoisseur of foreign cinema, this reviewer commends Madman Entertainment for not burdening this version of In the Realm of the Senses with an inappropriate
English dub track that would achieve nothing, other than succeed in the bastardisation of the Japanese translation.
The audio presentation is perhaps the transfer’s greatest weakness. While dialogue is always clear and easy to comprehend, there is a constant subliminal hum and subtle background hiss which is most noticeable when played at high volume; but, it seems, these aural anomalies are
significantly reduced if the film is listened to at a moderate level. There are moments, too, where minor vocal distortion is present. Despite this, however, it does not represent - to me, at least - a severe problem, if only because the picture was viewed at a temperate sound level; any higher, then the problematic audio would, no doubt, prove detrimental to the viewing experience. This is
not an inherent flaw in the transfer - it is simply a case of the digital format enhancing limitations within the original audio source.
In the Realm of the Senses is a minimalist experience and, therefore, does not feature the use of the rear surrounds or the subwoofer.
Although cynics will dismiss the suggestion that In the Realm of the Senses is not pornography, it is foolish and impudent to suggest that it is. Whilst it cannot be denied that Oshima’s most notorious work ventures into what can be seen as unsavoury territory with its graphic, and often disturbing, depictions of sexual activity - there are several resonating scenes, including the gang rape of a virgin geisha girl with a huge ornamental dildo, and the picture’s harrowing finale, featuring a stomach-churning act of castration - it must be made absolutely clear that In the Realm of the Senses is not Tinto Brass’ Caligula (1979) or Deep Throat and does not warrant comparison with these sensationalist films.
Even cinema violence can be deemed pornographic if handled in a gratuitous manner. Yet, despite its explicit nature, there can be no suggestion that In the Realm of the Senses’ sex scenes are gratuitous, since it not merely forms the film’s narrative, but it is of fundamental importance to the development of the characters and their relationship. Oshima, regardless of his original intentions to inflame the ire of his nation’s censorship board, does not depict sex for sex’s sake, but instead uses it as a means to explore the hazardous minefield of love and obsession. To slander or denigrate a legitimate work of art for its sexual content and proclaim it as pornography
is ludicrous; the argument rests with the film’s execution.
As with Breillat’s Romance, Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses is filmed in a decidedly quiet and clinical manner which succeeds in producing a viewing experience that is both compulsive and disturbingly voyeuristic. While there are moments that would not be misplaced in a pornographic movie - such as Matsuda’s determined fellating of Fuji’s penis which results in a
considerable burst of semen dribbling from her mouth - it is directed in such a non-judgmental and non-erotic way that, although they can provoke disgust or even outrage, the scenes cannot compare to the lurid gynecological depictions in an X rated picture. In the Realm of the Senses and the standard pornographic film are polarised like magnets: the former incites debate; the latter promotes excitement.
Those expecting sex will discover that In the Realm of the Senses will not disappoint - for the entire film’s duration almost every frame features sexual activity of some description, whether it be fellatio, cunnilingus (which is suggested and not shown), penetrative intercourse, unjustified rape, hints of necrophilia, erotic asphyxiation, sex with food, or the ingestion of menstrual blood. To reiterate, whereas the objective of pornography is to produce an excitable response within the viewer, Oshima’s erotic masterwork does not. Initially, when the sexual relationship between Sada and Kichizo is in its infancy, there are moments where the picture can be considered to be quite arousing, due largely to the playful, almost flirtatious, manner in which they fulfill each others’ needs.
But the light-hearted mood that dominates the first twenty minutes becomes sombre as Oshima begins to explore the darker side of human sexuality; as the hint of danger becomes more persuasive and Sada’s desires border on obsessive compulsion, all allusion to titillation has long
Oshima’s direction of In the Realm of the Senses is - as with his other films such as Death by Hanging (1968) and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1981) -superbly measured and carries with it an eloquent poise. While it is somewhat true that the film is a static affair and can prove to be an exercise in tedium for some viewers, there can be no denying the director’s sense of focus and artistry. However, if Oshima is the film’s guiding hand, then Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda are its heart; they are nothing short of mesmerising as the doomed couple Kichizo and Sada, displaying indomitable courage and great nuance in performing acts that most mainstream actors would refuse to do.
Admittedly, In the Realm of the Senses is not for the faint-hearted or those expecting cheap titillation. It is a challenging, provocative work that demands an open mind and cannot be approached as light entertainment - the film has a severe inclination to disturb, leaving an
indelible impression on those who wish to view it. The debate over whether Oshima’s masterwork is pornography or art will continue to rage and Madman Entertainment’s DVD release will perhaps inflame it further in Australia, but there seems to be one universal consensus: love it or vilify it, In the Realm of the Senses cannot be ignored.
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| And I quote...|
|"Blatant pornography or high-brow art? Either way, Nagisa Oshima’s most notorious film is a sumptuous visual feast for those brave enough to taste its dark and wanton delights... Cinema of the highest order...
- Shaun Bennett
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|by Shaun Bennett|
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