Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nagisa Oshima | Ai no Korīda (In the Realm of the Senses)

dancing to death
by Douglas Messerli

Nagisa Oshima (writer and director) Ai no Korīda (In the Realm of the Senses) / 1976, USA 1977

Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses is usually described as a “controversial” or “difficult” movie, the controversy, presumably, focused around the question of how much sex to actually portray in a non-pornographic movie. Many critics and audiences, particularly of its day, simply labeled it as pornography and tried to squelch it. In the US and Britain it was hard to view an uncut version of the film until the 1990s, when it was released on tape. The movie, filmed in France, has still to be seen uncut in Japan. Fortunately, Criterion has recently reissued a uncut version restored to its original deeply-hued colors.
     Thirty-seven years after its creation, this film is surely less startling than it might have been in 1976. But, at moments, it is still hard to watch, not because of its sexuality (and as critic Dana Stevens has written, this is a film not only about sexuality, but is itself an image and expression of sexuality)—almost all adults have seen penises, vaginas, breasts, and human beings fucking—but because of where it takes that sexuality, into the realm of the senses which go far beyond the sexual act, completely encompassing the couple, Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), to such a degree that love is moved to the arena of a bullfight (which is how the Japanese title translates), a battle between a human toreador and the beast within. 

     In the Realm of the Senses begins with a lesbian molestation, perhaps the most normative love portrayed in the work, and quickly moves to voyeurism and rape before moving on the transgressive self-indulgences that include the consumption of menstrual blood, savoring foods that have been first sauced in sexual juices, group sex, a rape of an elderly geisha, exhibitionism, child molestation, and finally sadomasochistic acts that increasing involve violence and strangulation, those actions ending in Kichizo’s death, Sada castrating him, and writing out a message in blood across his chest: “Sada and Kichi Together Forever.”

     Some clearly see the couple’s complete obsession with sexuality as liberating; Stevens describes it as precisely that, a film that offered an alternative to the increasing militarism of the time, 1936, in which the real-life characters, upon whom this work is based, had lived. I suppose, might I have seen this film at the age of 30 in 1977, it may have impressed me that way. Certainly I, myself, had been quite obsessed with sex just a few years earlier, before I had met my lifetime companion, Howard. But today I think that is a misreading of Oshima’s work. Despite the intense beauty of Oshima’s images, what Stevens describes as the work’s “lavish pictorial beauty (virtually every frame could be the subject of a Japanese erotic woodblock print),” I believe Oshima was pointing to the couple’s obsession not as opposed to the rising cultural violence and self-destruction, but as representative of it. Just as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò of a year earlier, the behavior of the central figures (in Pasolini’s case very much centered upon the abuse of children) gradually transform their sexual behaviors into increasingly bizarre social interchanges that reflect the society at large—in Pasolini’s example, the Italian fascist community—using the characters’ plunge into death and self-immolation to reveal the societal shifts. Oshima, in this work, has certainly not given up his political concerns, so intensely tied up in each of his films to sexuality, just to show us a couple that transgress the world around them. No, in their foul-smelling cage of a geisha house, Sada and Kitchi, like the society at large, are consuming themselves, devouring their own bodies in their increasing sexual and violent appetites.  

      Although I see this film as a substantially powerful work, it is, nonetheless, a movie about perversion. Even the geishas, none of them innocent of sexually-defined behavior, describe the couple as “perverts.” Indeed, it is just for this reason that it seems ridiculous to describe In the Realm of the Senses as pornography. For, in the end, Oshima’s work is very much a moral statement, and, like so many of his films, an attack upon certain historical moments and cultural values of his own country.

Los Angeles, June 28, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position

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