In the Realm of the Senses October 6, 2020
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
he infamy of writer-director Nagisa Ōshima’s In the Realm of the Senses precedes it. How couldn’t it? The French-Japanese film, released in 1976, cinematizes the lead-up and then finale to a bizarre real-life incident — that of a young Japanese woman, Sada Abe, who fatally strangled her lover and one-time employer, inn owner Kichizō Ishida, during sex amid a brief but heated affair. After Ishida took his
last breath, Abe castrated him. Before she was arrested for her crimes, Abe
carried around Ishida’s cleaved parts inside of her for several days.
Though of course immediately consigned to a lifetime of notoriousness (she spent a relatively brief six years in jail following her 1936 arrest), Abe wasn’t necessarily deemed villainous by the public. Her and Ishida’s sexual relationship was reputedly steeped in consensual sadomasochism, and her subsequent cries of love for him never wavered. Reportedly, Ishida and Abe had only recently started incorporating erotic asphyxiation into their sex life; he apparently told her before his death that he’d prefer it if she squeeze the life out of him this time because the pain following an unsqueezing was too great. When Abe carried his hacked parts with her, she wasn’t ostensibly doing so with the same twisted glee of a cold-blooded killer. "I couldn't take his head or body with me. I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories...I loved him so much — I wanted him all to myself,” she told police shortly after her arrest. For all intents and purposes, this appeared to be the predestined end to a mutually obsessive — and in turn mutually toxic — relationship. Its minutiae enraptured the public for decades. Abe successfully capitalized on her disrepute for years (she wrote a memoir, and made popular public appearances) until she disappeared from public view in 1970.
After Ōshima concluded around 1972 that he wanted to dramatize Abe and Ishida’s story, he decided, following much deliberation, that the only way to authentically convey their unhealthy, apparent our-bodies-against-the-world fixation on each other would be to not simulate the sex that made their relationship so meaningful. He didn’t make this decision with seaminess — the sex-sells-brained, money-bagged eyes of an exploitation-movie producer. (Ōshima was conversely well-regarded and long-established in the movie industry.) To him, the only way to effectively capture the fervor underlying this tale of erotic obsession was to try to capture it as accurately as possible — an unusual and extreme decision to match the unusualness and extremeness of Abe and Ishida’s relationship. It’d be a movie with the controversy baked in — potentially out-controversy its source material. After hearing that in France, all restrictions had recently been removed from the production of pornography, Ōshima saw his chance.
The resulting movie, which features daring, awesomely fervid performances from Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji as Abe and Ishida, respectively, is far from a lurid, artier-than-usual expression of the pornographic form. If anything, the succession of unsimulated sex scenes (which, it might be important to mention, are not long and photographically monotonous in the way standard-fare porn is) turns into something of a banality rather quickly. Rather than simplistically titillate, they reinforce the fleshy one-dimensionality of Abe and Ishida’s vigorous relationship (it was built pretty solely on their preoccupation with the other as a sex partner). I don’t think the insertion of unsimulated sex would as convincingly capture the dangerous single-mindedness that led to the doom of the romance. If dramatized, a drastic crime like this one benefits from a radical mode of recreation. In the Realm of the Senses is a movie in which immense mutual passion scarily mutates into its deadliest form. It’s a feverish, sumptuously made movie.
When the inexorably shocking finale comes, it doesn’t feel like a sensationalized denouement to a movie that, on paper, sounds like it could be sensational for sensation’s sake. It’s an eerie, frighteningly intense reimagining of a painful release. It doesn’t feel cheap — it’s no extension of ill-conceived sensationalism. Plus, it could be, and has been, argued that there is more dimension to this film inarguably established on a story of hazardous one-dimensionality. It’s covertly political. In a great essay published in Hazlitt, Erica X Eisen points out that the film’s few visual allusions — e.g., the presence of soldiers in the scarce glimpses into the outside world — show that “Ōshima deliberately aligns Abe and Ishida’s affair with the Feb. 26 Incident, which resulted in the Japanese military’s consolidation of power over civilian government...Set against the fever-pitch nationalism of the 1930s — during which sacrifice to the point of suicide was valorized by a totalitarian government that also preached massive territorial expansion and racial supremacism — Abe and Ishida’s absolute (and ultimately fatal) focus on the pleasures of the flesh constitutes a repudiation of the state’s collectivist ideology.”
In spite of In the Realm of the Senses’s bold provocations and brashly confident, stylish filmmaking, the whispers around it — it featuring real sex, it being bombarded with censorship and outright bans for decades, it bearing a story so hard to believe — disappointingly continue to almost eclipse the work itself, lumped in with other movies reduced to little in the popular imagination aside from their so-called sordidness. In forgoing so many genre limitations and general cinematic conventions, In the Realm of the Senses proves rather transcendent — the kind of work that has the power to make you reconsider the form as you’ve come to understand it. A