I wasn’t ready.
I first read about “In The Realm Of The Senses” something like 27 years ago, reading a magazine, where there was an article about Nagisa Oshima and his “new” release, “Empire Of Passion,” which the article claimed was more like a spiritual sequel to his earlier picture than anything new.
In the article, they alluded to the controversy over “In The Realm Of The Senses,” and whether or not it was “fair” for the film to get the same rating as pornography. And because I decided at a very early age that censorship is a pure and simple evil, something that I realized later is one of those moral stances so broad as to be unenforceable. I put “In The Realm Of The Senses” on The List. Most film freaks, as they’re becoming film freaks, put together that list of titles, the movies you know that you’ll see at some point, and that you want to give your full respect when you finally sit down with them.
And over the years, I’ve seen those films in Austin at the Alamo, or at the Cinerama Dome before the Arclight was there or at the restored Egyptian or at the Nuart or on VHS or cable or DVD or laserdisc or BluRay… anywhere I could, and in some cases, waiting on the shelf for a few years until I was ready for the experience I excpected to have based on what what I know about a film.
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In this case, I knew of the controversy, but I very specifically wouldn’t read anything over the years that detailed what, exactly, to expect. And so I bought the BluRay blind, interested because (A) I know of the film’s reputation, which is strong, and (B) I loved the two earlier Criterion BluRays that I bought, “The Last Metro” and “Chungking Express”… gorgeous.
So I picked it up when it came out. Which is many weeks back at this point. Maybe even a couple of months back. And I put it in the rotation here in my office. But an X-rated Japanese drama about sexual obsession is hard to schedule when your office is in the middle of your house and your wife and your kids and your mother-in-law are all walking in and around the office while you’re watching things during the day and the evening and even into the night.
I finally sat down at three in the morning some weekend morning, watched the first half of the film. Just watching that first half, I realized three things. First, it is a near-complete artistic failure on the part of the American film industry that we do not have a place in our cinema diet for movies that feature frank sexual material but are not considered pornography. Second, Criterion’s BluRay transfers of vintage titles are, in my opinion, the best reproductions of the look of a great film print that I’ve seen so far. And finally, Nagisa Oshima, the director of “In The Realm Of The Senses,” is sort of amazing.
Set in 1936 and inspired by real incidents, “Realm” tells the story of the collision of two people and the horrible aftermath of that encounter. Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) is a former prostitute, determined to leave that work behind, who takes a job as a serving girl at an inn run by Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji). He falls for her, and they begin a torrid sexual affair that quickly escalates from erotic involvement to nonstop obsession. Oshima’s decision is to keep as much of the film as possible in the bedroom, dwelling almost entirely on the moments where these two connect sexually.
And connect they do. In explicit detail. Repeatedly. As performances go, both Matsuda and Fuji are brave and emotionally bare throughout. Sada Abe is a fascinating monster, a woman who is so sexually attuned that she needs more of it the more she has. What begins as erotic quickly devolves into grotesque as the two lovers lock themselves away from the world, determined to push themselves as far as they can. They keep finding new boundaries to cross, until finally, they have no choice but to explore the final option, and the film starts to get into crazy David Carradine territory.
I stoped the film just over halfway through on that first viewing, and it took me a few weeks to find a time when no one else was awake to be disturbed by it. As a result, it was last week when I finally got around to finishing it. And since I still didn’t realize where the movie was headed, it is a truly unfortunate coincidence that I picked the night I did. To explain why, we’re heading deep into spoiler territory. Be warned.
See, I just got a vasectomy.
That’s a bit of a giveaway, but you really don’t have any idea how horrible things get. I was told before the procedure that I would feel “some discomfort” for a few days afterwards. My guess is that the doctor who told me that has never had a vasectomy, because what I actually felt was EXCRUCIATING PAIN THAT STILL HAS NOT SUBSIDED. It’s horrifying. I’ve suffered several hemotomas in the meantime, my recovery no doubt impeded in some part by the fact that both of my kids think it’s endlessly hilarious to find ways to hit me in the crotch, having been conditioned by a steady diet of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” episodes. Also, when they tell you to get bed rest, that normally doesn’t include driving three hours in LA traffic or spending six hours on a film set standing or… well… anything besides bed rest. So despite the presence of a shiny new bottle of Vicodin in my house, the pain’s been non-stop, and the day after the procedure, when all I could really do was lay on one of the Sumo beanbags in my office, I found myself chipping away at my stack of things to watch.
And that’s when I put in the second half of “In The Realm Of The Senses” and completely broke my brain.
Sada can’t stand a minute apart from Kichizo, and she’s not willing to let him waste a single erection. She won’t even stop having sex with him long enough to go to the bathroom. It’s the ultimate extreme version of that overheated phase that most lovers go through at the start. Instead of eventually fading to a more manageable lust, though, for these two, everything is about acceleration. Sada begins choking Kichizo during sex, and one of the most upsetting moments in the film is a startlingly graphic shot as she’s got him close to blacking out just as she climaxes, riding him slowly, grinding herself up and down. And, yes, theoretically, you could suggest the same thing without the graphic image, but there’s something almost electric about the way Oshima chooses to punctuate these intense emotional beats with a shot that reveals to you that there’s nothing “fake” about what’s happening in the scene. She may not actually be choking him to the point of unconsciousness, but there’s still a level of reality to what you’re looking at that jolts you out of the comfort zone of “it’s just a movie.”
When she realizes that choking him almost to the point of death isn’t enough, Kichizo finally tells her to do whatever she has to, and they have one final session together that ends with him dead. And I thought that was it. The punchline. And if it had been, it still would have been one of the most emotionally intense films I’ve seen in a long time.
No… Sada needs a souvenir. She just can’t stand being apart from Kichizo’s part, even once he’s dead. And so she goes to get a knife. And as she walked back into the room, my own aching equipment began to send jolts up my nervous system, and I heard someone saying, “Oh, god, no, oh, god, no, oh, god, no,” and it took me a good ten seconds to realize it was me.
In a film that is obsessed with reality, I realized that the greatest fear is that you’re going to see something you can’t unsee, and even thought I intellectually know that the castration the film portrays isn’t “real,” it is breathtakingly horrible. It looks (and, to my horror, sounds) difficult and authentic. The first few shots in the sequence are actually her with a knife up against the actual penis of the actor, leading into some of the most disturbingly real make-up I’ve ever seen, and culminating in a shot of Sada finally at rest with her lover’s body beside her, Kichizo turned into a bloody Ken doll. And by the time that last shot came up, I was all the way on the far side of my office, standing, hands clapped over my mouth, the pain absolutely racing through my system, no doubt sympathetic in origin, but crippling in intensity nonetheless.
In the end, love is not ownership, but for some people, nothing less will suffice. “In The Realm Of The Senses” is about what happens when we abandon everything that defines us as rational, thinking creatures and hand ourselves over to pure carnal sensation. At what point do pleasure and pain and love and madness all comingle? Don’t we all go a little crazy regarding sex sometimes? And if so, how can we judge the insanity on display here? Yes… these two go too far. Way too far. But the emotions running under the surface of everything are recognizable, and that’s what I found most frightening of all.
It’s a fantastic transfer. It looks like they found a brand new print. The liner notes in the BluRay are just as smart and detailed as you’d want from Criterion, and overall, I’m glad this is one of the latest additions to my shelf.
I just won’t be watching it again for a while. I’ve got scars, both physical and mental, that need some time to heal first.
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