Abe and Kinchizo
If one could pluck erotic tragedy from the vine, my guess is they would have a copy of In The Realm of the Senses (1976) in their fingers. What an audacious feast of carnal desires and social taboos. I dare say this film is meta: Not only do we see the actions within the film as taboo, we ourselves engage in societal taboos as we view a film. It still hasn’t been seen in its entirety in Japan, where it was made. In the Realm of the Senses was directed by Nagisa Oshima, who’s know for films that challenge society’s rules and standards.
In the Realm of the Senses is based on a true story in Japan of folk hero Sada Abe, who, after accidentally killing her lover, Kichizo Ishida, cut off his genitals and carried them around in her purse. Several films have been made about Sada Abe. In the Realm of the Senses is not a biography, nor does it explore Abe’s motivations for the death of her lover. What we have is a film that depicts themes of raw sexuality and tragedy.
Visually we’re witnesses to a tragic, yet erotic love affair that crosses social taboos not only of the time in the film, but to the real word’s censors. Make no mistake. This is a very explicit film, and the sex is real. It has a sublime effect as I went from spectator to voyeur multiple times. Often I felt as an intruder, watching people release their inhibitions.
Part of looking back at In the Realm of the Senses allows us to see where and how far censorship and depicting sex and sexuality in films progressed. This film definitely blurs the line between narrative and titillation with real sex scenes. Director Oshima makes it clear by the content this film, that there would be confrontations and daring even by today’s standard. In many films where the sex is faked and depicted as real, as much as the same manner as violence in film is depicted. In the Real of the Senses dares to break one taboo after another. The film has pornographic aspects, but it’s taken seriously with a strong narrative and tells a story, which doesn’t really happen in typical porn. We also have a tragic ending which is a far cry from XXX features. Even at the end of this film with tragedey and lose, Abe manages to cement her commitment to her lover for Kenchizo. With In the Realm of the Senses we, the viewers face the question of what it means to be sexual beings in a world set with limits and taboos.
Abe and Kinchizo have a lot of conversations during lovemaking that's a bit more than the typical pornspeak.
With In the Realm of the Senses we have an unflinching portrait and cautionary tale when Kichizo and Abe indulge in and are lead by their ID and libido. In fact I dare say the film functions as our ID, allowing us to see a world with explicit details. I applaud the frankness laid out before the viewer. The tragedy and havoc wrecked by this couple is not without consequence, neither is this film. If this is eroticism explored to dark and unsavory levels, I am curious about a film that could express a brighter theme with the use of unsimulated sex.
I admire the unflinching desire to capture graphic sex and sexuality on film while maintaining a narrative. I cringe where the passions of the couple lead the viewer to see how unrestrained a level sex brings to the fold. This is a film that is much more than what is seen on the surface. It’s not a film for everyone. It pushes the limits of what censorship, and the dangers of unleashing the ID, and reflecting actions that do happen in multiple societies. With this film, sex becomes the ultimate expression of love, as does death.
Sex works like an addiction for these two.
There is a willingness to explore penetration, the act of penetration as a skill and as a function of biology/sexuality. There’s also a willingness to be penetrated and explored sexually. Women brandish phallic objects as well. Abe threatens with a knife as wel as fantasizes about murdering Kichizo’s wife. Not all phallic tools are for killing. A group of women explore their own pleasures with a phallic shaped object. Ultimately Abe takes the source of pleasure from her dead lover. This tragic mix of mutilation and sexuality leaves a disturbing resonance of a destructive love.
One of the cooler aspects of seeing this film via the Criterion Collection are the essays in the film booklet. The cinema studies student that I am can’t resist reading them and exploring the discussion of said film. If you get a chance give them a peep. I also suggest Criterion’s website where you can see several of the essays. Oshima’s thoughts are printed in the booklet as well. In one section he speaks the insecurities of many of the actors looked at for the role of Kichizo.
There is a poetic elegance tied to the film, as sexuality is the main theme, but not the only aspect of the film. To label it as simply “pornographic” is a disservice to the material and offers only a limited understanding of the film. Yes it does push boundaries and yes if watching graphic sex is not your cup of tea in a film, I’d sincerely advise against seeing it. Likewise if you’re looking for a straightforward porn film, you may be dissatisfied.
There is a dark side to passion that’s explored here as well. As liberated as the characters, they are also in a toxic love affair. Our hero is married to another women and she; our heroine is a servant of lower standing. Still the fires ignite, that the sexual dependency and liberation clashes against the culture and possibly all the viewers’ sensibilities.
The desire to explore sex and attraction only intensifies from here.
The film’s tragic elements appear when the couple neglect to use restraint and set boundaries for their sexual passions. Had such limitations been part of their regiment, perhaps the tragedy could have been avoided in the first place. As I stated earlier, the ID is unleashed with no checks and balances. Passion became too much of a good thing. Sex does have thrills and exploring can be a healthy between two consenting adults, however there is a limit to surrendering to one’s passions. This is a cautionary tale as relevant as when the film was made in 1976.
The bodies encompass more than sexual desire. They are part of process of identification, and loss. There is vulnerability, aesthetic qualities, and frankness to the body. Sexual roles and identification cannot be hidden or restrained by society’s norms or our own inhibitions about viewing the nude and/or sexualized human body. Still, we live in worlds where there are norms and rules. We have a film where taboos broke down for our entertainment.
As tragic and explicit as this film is, I think it’s an amazing story that doesn’t sacrifice the narrative for the sake of depicting sex. Again, if this is not your kind of movie, I won’t recommend it. If you think the explicit scenes won’t bother you, give it a try.