In The Realm of the Senses is one of those early films where the genre of pornography was still in its global infancy and certainly incredibly different than what we describe it as in the 21st century. This film remains a contentious censored piece in Japan where it was filmed, and had to be exported to Paris to be cut and edited and released in the version that we are receiving today in the Criterion Collection. But the story it tells is of a passionate and encompassing love affair that ends in the ultimate tragic sacrificial mutilation – based on an early twentieth century true story that is well known in Japanese culture, many see this story as a tongue in cheek tribute to the power of love as much as a warning of the dangers of the obsessions of lust and possession.
It tells the story of a sordid relationship between an ex-prostitute who just began work as a maid in a hotel, and her married boss, the hotel owner. He leaves his wife for maid, and the two spend the film experimenting and exploring the sensory indulgences of their sexual lives. The script is lyrical and poetic, and the sets of this entirely studio-filmed world magically transport us to the very realm of senses that the two main characters explore together. The skies are painted in dreamlike sunset hues while the worn doorframes and spotless tatami mats provide the perfect nesting ground for our two protagonists. The ending of the film is shocking, completely unexpectedly mirroring an imaginary moment of gore early in the film, but one that Japanese audiences are already familiar with because of the legendary story it is based on.
The buildup seems relatively tame for today’s cinematic experience, and what once might have seemed to be shocking content is truly disarmed by the cinematography of Hideo Ito and the breathtaking, intimate performances of Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji. In many ways, this film lacks much of the hallmark of what makes pornography pornography – that is, the illicit examination of the sex act itself on the level with the performers and focusing mainly on the penetrative and stimulating act – which is often for the audience to objectify and therefore ignore the performers. This piece is a subtle work of art whose main subject matter is sex, and therefore is narrative examination of the intimacy of intimacy. It is no surprise that the director directly states that it is the censorship and blurring of portions of the film that makes it pornography – I would agree. Sometimes seeing what is behind the blur is often less titillating and more human than the suggestion and hiding of what one is not allowed to see. It is a beautiful film with a shocking ending, and we are on the same disastrous ride the characters are on as we see phalluses beaten, stoned, and abused throughout the film – quite the contrast to the western objectification and abuse of women and their bodies in our films. A gorgeous piece, made magical by incredible sets and production design that brings the audience to a time and place that no longer exists – a place as much of beauty and manners as a place of nearing the edge of of complete catastrophe.
The booklet of essays and supplementary material came with two great pieces in addition to beautiful photography and production notes.
The first is Japanese historian, cultural critic, and cinema expert Donald Richie’s essay “Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography.” It is an interesting study on what the nature of pornography is in the face of the significant censorship this film has experienced since its creation in Japan. The thesis of the piece sets out to define what pornography and obscenity is, and then discuss how this film isn’t inherently pornographic as it does not set out to titillate the audience at all (especially in Japan where most people were aware of the true crime on which the film is based, the Sada Abe incident)… But that through censoring the way Japan censors the film, it creates a pornographic film where there is none.
The second is Katsue Tomiyama’s 1983 interview with the director Nagisa Oshima. Oshima explores the entire process of making the film, including casting, production, editing, and distribution across several continents, all difficult because of the constant threat of the government shutting everything down. It seems like it is one of those works of art that is a miracle it ever found its way to the public, and that was mainly because everyone involved with the process, from the actors to the production team to the editors and developers in Paris all believed in the project, as ridiculous as it seemed at the time.