Straight-up pornography or a graphic insight into a destructive and deeply-intimate relationship? This is the question audiences and critics have been asking since provocative Japanese director Nagisa Oshima released In the Realm of the Senses back in 1976. It made waves across the world for its use of unsimulated sex between the film’s leads and for breaking several taboos surrounding sex. To this day, In the Realm of the Senses is still censored in Japan, but the film joined The Criterion Collection in 2009 on DVD and now it finally has a Blu Ray release featuring a high-definition transfer of the complete, uncensored version.
The film is loosely based on the true life affair between former sex worker Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and married innkeeper Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) that rocked Japan back in 1936. It doesn’t take long to set up the plot and introduce the characters. Sada, now working as a maid, attempts to hide her previous line of work from her judgemental colleagues and is immediately smitten by Kichizo after spying him having sex. Kichizo is a known womaniser and catches the eye of Sada. After molesting her, the two begin their affair that quickly devolves into a destructive relationship.
In terms of plot, it seems like there isn’t much else going on apart from the explicit sex – but that is precisely the point. Much like his lead characters, Oshima is breaking taboos around sexual desire and sex itself by showing the audience sex scene after sex scene. The earlier sex scenes are sure to elicit nervous laughter as that pornography vs. art debate creeps into your mind, but after a little while audiences will acclimatise to Sada and Kichizo’s world. There is a frank openness with the sex that arguably modern cinema should adopt more. It shows sex in all its forms: the good, the funny, the bad. There isn’t anything gratuitous with the directing and cinematography – sometimes we simply observe the intensely physical affair as it is, other times we are let in for a more intimate peek into their love for each other.
Sex scene after sex scene runs the risk of becoming stale, no matter how shocking it can be, but thankfully as the runtime goes on the film’s thematic elements come to fruition. There is an interesting duality running throughout In the Realm of the Senses. The couple are very open about sex and are respectful of each other as they explore different sexual activities before leaning into sadomasochism. Oshima cleverly sets most of their heated scenes together to the confines of a room in an inn – they can only freely explore each other and different aspects of sex without the gaze of the public eye. On the other hand, however, Sada and Kichizo are terribly toxic individuals.
Sada’s love for Kichizo leads to extreme jealousy that threatens a violent outburst, whilst Kichizo commits an even worse atrocity after the groping that initiated the whole affair. Making the leads terrible human beings raises some questions when contrasted to the film’s open acceptance of sex. Does this make their sexual acts perverted and therefore something the audience should mock and shame? Or is this commentary on the fact that good or bad, people should be free to explore sexual desires in their own safe space without judgement? Oshima doesn’t directly answer these questions and instead makes the audience ponder on the subject matter long after the credits have rolled.
Although the film’s topic and content will forever be the big talking point, this Blu Ray edition does a fantastic job in showing how incredible the other production elements are. This high-definition transfer is crisp, sure, but it is the colour in particular that stands out. The costumes are dazzling but it’s the sets that impress the most, making use of the limited spaces occupied by the entangled lovers. Another big feature is the audio, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that makes the dialogue crystal clear and breathes new life into the superb score.
Unfortunately there aren’t any new extras or bonus features baked into the Criterion disc. Taken from the 2009 DVD version, there are two interviews that are worth a watch. An interview with Tastuya Fuji, specially recorded for the DVD, sees him look back on the film’s production: from discussing the cast and crew, to shooting the sex scenes, to talking about his working relationship with the director. It would have been even more engrossing if Fuji talked in more detail about performing unsimulated sex on screen with his co-star. Ultimately though, the disc would have benefitted from a new interview with Fuji (Matsuda and Oshima have since died) to look back on the film’s production and in particular those sex scenes – especially with the popularity of the MeToo movement and the introduction of dedicated intimacy coordinators on set. The other interview features the director and both leads at a promotional event answering questions, but it’s surprisingly short and dull. What makes it worth watching is seeing a rare glimpse of Matsuda before her acting career ending all too soon.
With or without the enhanced features of a high-definition transfer, In the Realm of the Senses is an enthralling, taboo-breaking classic. The only big critique with the story itself is that the ending drags on for far too long, but Oshima and his leads bravely explore a heated topic head on and in the most forward way possible. Even with the perfectly fine bonus content, this is a worthy Blu Ray in the Criterion Collection.
In the Realm of the Senses will release on Blu Ray January 3.