The following article was penned for the incomparable Darryl Mayeski from Screem Magazine. Boys, hold onto the family jewels…
Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses & Empire of Passion (Criterion release)
First published in Screem Magazine, USA, 2009
Warning: This review contains some highly explicit descriptions that may offend some readers.
Skipping through chapters of Criterion’s In the Realm of the Senses release for friends at a dinner party elicited the exact response I’d hoped for – plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ as hardcore sexual interplay unfolded under the flooding of unscrupulous theatrical lighting; close-ups of a woman’s mouth on a man’s member, slipping off the head to allow semen to dribble from her lips; later, a man licking a woman’s menstrual blood from his fingers.
That would seem as though we were watching pornography, right? And yes, to a certain extent, even Japanese iconoclast Nagisa Oshima wouldn’t describe his work any other way. But for film boffins the world over, In the Realm of the Senses has inflamed almost 35 years of critical debate over that fine line between art and pornography, and, suffice to say, despite fervent arguments from opposing points of view, the ‘answer’ still proves elusive.
Unlike ‘porn’ as the ‘sweaty ferret’ crowd watch it, In the Realm of the Senses comes with a strong storyline; straight-forward, but complex in its psychosexual dynamics and ultimate resolution. At the time of its release, a Japanese audience would have been familiar with the story of Sada Abe from the 1930s – a woman convicted for erotically asphyxiating her lover, Kichizo Ishida, and then severing his penis and testicles, which she carried around in her handbag. Watching Realm would have been something of a slow-boil tension-er as the momentum of Sada and Kichizo’s relationship builds to its – pardon the pun – climax.
As actor Tatsuya Fuji – who impressively maintained his ‘wood’ while also creating something of monumental artistic import – says in the interviews in this Criterion edition, “They wanted to freeze their love and keep it forever.” In fact, from first appearing as the macho Japanese man, who overwhelms his withering sexual conquest, he turns into a vessel for Sada’s deepest and most profound desires, which are quite insatiable – at one stage, she even asks him to pee inside her because she doesn’t want to stop for a toilet break. Kichizo’s physical deterioration helps emphasise this point. Fuji’s ‘method’ approach not only involved actual sex with his female lead, Eiko Matsuda, but he fasted, so that his character would progressively lose weight as Sada literally drained him of everything.
If this sounds heavier emotionally than the usual porno, then you’re getting the gist of it. Those looking for a masturbatory experience would be hard-pressed to maintain their hard-on (or wide-on) after the dynamics of Sada and Kichizo’s relationship start to shift. The voyeuristic element of filmmaking is not lost on Realm’s creator, Oshima, either – characters (interestingly enough, mainly women) look through screen doors at the lovemaking, occasionally even blatantly commenting on the ‘action’ or simply wandering around the room. The traditional Japanese setting featuring kimonos, shamizen and tatami mats would suggest behaviour of a more coy nature, which helps make it more shocking.
Along with the action that takes place on-screen, there’s a whole other story to In the Realm of the Senses, occurring behind the camera, which gets a thorough workout thanks to the supplementary material on this disc. Oshima was aware of the controversy that would ensue from Realm in his native Japan; therefore, the film was protected by its French co-production credits, with even the dailies sent to France for processing in case the Japanese authorities decided to seize them. Unfortunately, while Nagisa’s voice rings loud and clear through his work, he fails to lend it to this Criterion release, possibly because of language barriers. Instead, film historian Tony Rayns offers his commentary alongside the film, which is incredibly dense and informative, although being that of an outsider looking in.
Where we get a first person perspective into the making of Realm is through the interviews that appear here as extras. The eloquent, and still dashingly handsome despite his advancing years, Fuji talks with considerable reverence about the film that exposed him as an actor in more ways than one. Another extra feature called ‘Recalling the Film’ pieces together interviews with production coordinator Hayao Shibata, assistant director Yoichi Sai, distributor Yoko Asakura and line producer Koji Wakamatsu, who is an intriguing character in Japanese film himself, having been a rabble-rousing champion of the ‘left’ – as well as Oshima – and a major influence on the pinku eiga genre of Japanese erotic cinema. More supplementary tidbits include full sequences that were trimmed by Oshima to rein in the film’s running time, and a rather obliquely constructed US trailer for the film.
Oshima’s partner film to In the Realm of the Senses is Empire of Passion, although ‘partner’ is somewhat of a misleading word considering the two films are strikingly different, stylistically speaking. In her essay in the DVD extras of Empire of Passion – ‘Double Obsession: Saki, Sada and Oshima’ – Canadian film professor Catherine Russell calls Realm/Passion Oshima’s diptych, while also noting the disparities between the two. Fans of Realm’s explicitness should be aware that Empire is the far more subtle film – and, realistically, it would be pure sensationalism to try raising the bar on what Realm had already established. Far from being an exercise in eroticism, Empire is a ghost story set in a remote Japanese village in the late 1890s, where the phantasmagorical represents the guilt of a woman who, seduced by a younger man, concedes to his demands to kill her husband.
Whereas Realm’s camera is largely static, Empire’s is fluid. Whereas Realm’s colour palette favours the candy-bright, Empire predominantly reflects nature’s hues, the film noticeably shifting across all four seasons and their distinct visual contexts. Whereas Realm’s sex scenes are obviously unsimulated, Empire’s are more modest, although without smothering the intensity. In fact, in both films, the couples’ desire for each other is the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of their downfall. Academic Catherine Russell points out that the similarities between the two films lies in desire and sexuality as political resistance.
As a first-time watcher of Empire of Passion, I felt as though I was witnessing a cinematic classic that had somehow slipped through my critical net – it’s that good. Realm might be the film with the notoriety, but that does not mean its partner – Empire – is any less an achievement for treading the more conventional path. This is stunning stuff; imbibed with a uniquely Japanese aesthetic that extends to beautiful rural backdrops and the eerie folkloric tradition of ghost stories that sees the rickshaw-driving husband appear for his nightly sake by the fire or even to provide a lift home through the dark night. Just as easily as he sets libidos racing in Realm, Oshima injects spookiness into Empire as we wait to see if this is a malevolent or just a friendly ghost hoping to regain something of his mortal past.
Tatsuya Fuji returns to Oshima’s screen, filling the male role in the romantic couple, and proving that his performing skills extend well beyond hardening his wing-wang on cue. Kazuko Yoshiyuki adeptly handles the lead female role (sadly, Eiko Matsuda’s career would go down the gurgler after portraying Sada, despite a tour-de-force effort) and appears in interview extras with Fuji in material recorded specifically for the Criterion Collection. Other supplementary features on the disk, echoing Realm, include interviews with production consultant Koji Wakamatsu and assistant directors Yusuke Narita and Yoichi San, and the US trailer, but unfortunately, no audio commentary comes with this one.
In conclusion, I must tip my hat to Criterion for another job well done. Moving through Criterion releases is akin to an education in cinema history and, once again, they present each movie with both reverence and sensitivity. Not only are the resolutions of each disc impeccable – the softness and depth of Oshima’s cinematography popped on my new Sony Bravia screen – but even the detailing of the menu page screams ‘quality’ of the highest degree. Regardless of the pornography versus art debate, Criterion leave little doubt as to which side of the fence they sit. Shed that ‘Miss Prude’ attitude. This is art – goddamn it!