In the Realm of the Senses

(Ai no corrida/L’Empire des sens, Nagisa Oshima, Japan/France, 1976)


The adventure of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) started simply enough, when producer Anatole Dauman proposed to the director: “Let’s collaborate on a film. A porno.” Three years later, on trial for obscenity in Japan, Oshima remained unrepentant: “I have absolutely no intention of asserting, ‘Because this is art, it is not obscene’.”

Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification today inclines to the view that the film is indeed art – thankfully so, since that means we can at last see it uncut for the first time since the Melbourne Film Festival of 1976. But we miss some of the meaning and force of this remarkable work if we separate it altogether from a mid ’70s context when many filmmakers around the world considered making "a porno" a highly attractive and even politically radical option.

This is the period that saw the appearance of Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse (1976), Marco Ferreri’s The Last Woman (1976), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló (1976) and Miklos Jancsó’s Private Vices, Public Virtues (1975), among others. All these libertine films broke social taboos and confronted sexual repressions. Yet there was more than erotic or political liberation at stake; these directors also wanted to push the cinematic medium itself to a literal, graphic, unadorned extreme.


Pornography – as one often heard at the time – was the cinema laid bare, reduced to its stark essentials. Oshima, for his part, had the keenest appreciation of the paradoxes involved in this ambition. Porn reveals all to the camera’s gaze, but in a sense transmits nothing. It alienates as much as it educates, deadens as much as it arouses. But it at least leaves a zone of mystery, intact for every viewer, as to how the act of sex really feels for those involved in its intimacies.

Likewise, while porn is the most hyper-real of all documentary forms, it also a pure fantasy projection, a dream-screen. “For me,” declared Oshima, “film is the visualisation of the director’s desire.”

The world has always overflowed with porno movies, but none are anything like In the Realm of the Senses. It is both an immediate, carnal film and a secretive, cryptic one. Dream scenes, odd inserts, references to incomprehensible events and motivations punctuate the virtually non-stop love action between Kichi (Tatsuya Fuji) and Sada (Eiko Matsuda). The film showcases as many traditional Japanese songs as it does sexual positions, making it an avant-garde porno musical – although, maddeningly, none of the lyrics are subtitled. [Postscript: the 2009 Criterion DVD edition supplies these subtitles.]

Oshima began his career as a New Wave filmmaker at the same time as Jean-Luc Godard, to whom he has often been compared. But Oshima rarely used the wild, fragmented, collage style beloved of Godard and his acolytes. He prefers to conjure for us a time, a world and a group of people, and then subtly disorient us at every turn, poking holes in the plenitude of the cinematic illusion. This filmmaker who once advised his comrades, “Don’t make even one haphazard shot!”, is true to his word: his style is so rigorous, so sure from moment to moment, that it mesmerises the viewer.

What is In the Realm of the Senses really about? Oshima began from a real-life case of 1936 involving a woman who castrated her lover in an act not of violence but passion. The historical moment, glancingly alluded to in the film and explicitly announced only in its last seconds, is crucial, marking as it does an important date in the rise of Japanese militarism.

From this, some commentators take the film as a cautionary allegory: individualistic sex obsession leads these underground lovers away from the political big picture that surrounds and determines them. Kichi and Sada become exclusive, possessive, withdrawn – and thus, as Oshima put it, “eternal prisoners of the societal structure”.

Yet the film displays far more curiosity than condemnation. In the Realm of the Senses is an extraordinary meditation upon the physicality and emotional power of sex. The director once declared: “I believe that through union with another individual one is attempting union with all of humanity and all of nature”. The film shows this striving for such union, but also its inevitable breakdown – and its ambiguously ecstatic conclusion.

This is at once a very immediate and profoundly cerebral movie. Oshima looks forward to the day when “films are shown with an accompanying interpretation”, and he gladly provides the keys for such interpretation. Accordingly, many of this film’s most devoted admirers offer hard-core intellectual appreciations. The novelist André Pieyre de Mandiargues traces its inspiration in Sade, Mishima, the painter Balthus and the philosopher Georges Bataille, who claimed that eroticism is “the acceptance of life even to the point of losing it”.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan found the film, paradoxically, one of the “most chaste” he had ever seen. Filmmaker Catherine Breillat, whose Romance (1999) is so deeply indebted to Oshima’s breakthrough, agrees that the film is “pure”, blissful, and yet illustrative of the dark, very Lacanian notion that sex is “a site of complete non-communication between men and women”, since Kichi’s super-human potency can match Sada’s vampiric voraciousness only in death.

Maybe the film can be psychoanalysed in this way, but not its characters. They are pure presences, without past or future: beings of flesh and voice, rendered with stunning palpableness by Oshima. Once one has become accustomed to the pornographic provocation of seeing these actors actually copulating in front of the camera, it is the smaller, supremely crafted details surrounding the pair – their cries, silences, enigmatic looks and gestures – which insinuate themselves deep into our unconscious selves.

Oshima described the “desires and moods” of himself and his cast and crew during the making of the film as “chiefly playful”. A quarter of a century later, at the age of 68, Oshima is as droll, cheeky, intense and surprising as ever, judging by his most recent work, the superb Gohatto (1999) featuring Takeshi Kitano.

The playful and the forbidden, the historical and the eternal, the political and the personal: few directors weave all these as finely as Oshima. In the Realm of the Senses is his monument.

© Adrian Martin November 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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