Sex films are the bastard children of cinema because of their audience. Porn constitutes one of the biggest segments of the American video market, but the vast majority of porn is so bad it’s no wonder it rarely can be more than a guilty pleasure. “Bad” does not mean “dirty”, unless sexual activity itself is unacceptable; “bad” means mechanical, lifeless, boring, unerotic. As John Waters put it, most porn is about as sexy as watching open-heart surgery.
It’s been said the best way to criticize one film is to make another, and In the Realm of the Senses was designed as a rebuke to not only the vast majority of adult films, but to society’s own treatment of same. Here we have a film that is both a serious and intelligent drama, and also a film so sexually explicit that most audiences can’t help but see only the latter.
Senses is based on the true story of Sada Abe (played here by Eiko Matsuda), a woman who became a popular myth figure in Japan for having strangled and sexually mutilated her lover, the owner of the resort hotel where she worked at the time. That man, Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji, a veteran actor and pop star), is already married, but his erotic appetites appear to be far broader than can be contained by any one woman. Then Sada comes along, and the two are spellbound with each other. She wants him for herself, to the exclusion of everything else in both of their lives — and he finds such passion more exciting than anything else he could come up with, or has sought out.
They spend what appear to be days on end in bed, copulating, stopping only to drink and maybe drag a passer-by into the fray. At one point she leaves to go back to her own husband, an old schoolteacher; the separation only drives them both that much crazier for each other. On her return, she becomes all the more jealous and defensive, threatening to kill him if he is unfaithful (by sleeping with his own wife, no less). If she can’t have him, no one should. The outside world has less to offer them with each passing day: at one point, Ishida walks past a whole platoon of soldiers off to fight in Manchuria, and his gloom is palpable. Sada offers him something available nowhere else.
The sex is real, and we see a great deal of it. This was shocking in 1975, and it’s still shocking now, even with mainstream films like Pola X featuring similarly explicit scenes. Donald Richie’s essay for the Criterion edition of the film points out that unlike conventional porn, it’s not about the two of them playing to the camera, but to each other; the emotional intimacy is what makes it startling (that and the fact that name actors were doing this in a big-budget production). We watch them — sometimes close up, sometimes at arm’s length, sometimes from the other side of the room — and are reminded through everything from the editing to the camera’s placement that we don’t watch them for the sake of our own satisfaction. As Ritchie argued, it’s difficult if not impossible to turn people you have empathy for into mere sex objects. Then again, the original Fox Lorber U.S. video version of the film sported a blurb on the package from none other than Madonna: “It turns me on because it’s real.” No film is immune, it seems, from becoming nothing more than what the viewer chooses to make of it — even if the film was constructed to avoid that in the first place.
The director, Nagisa Oshima, is fully aware of all this, which is a large part of the reason the film is cinema and filmmaking and drama, and not just smut. He comments on it through the action: at various points characters spy on each other (Sada’s first glimpses of Ishida are him with his wife, copulating vigorously), or through cutaways. During Sada and Ishida’s mock-wedding, they consummate the “marriage” in front of the attendant geisha; three of them hold down a fourth and force a dildo upon her so she knows what to expect from her own prospective husband. The end result is that the sex is not erotic at all — especially since the film is not really about sex anyway, so much as it is about sex as a medium, or an arena, for shared despair. Getting aroused at their behavior would be like cheering at a car crash. And yet ordinary folks cheered Sada on when they learned of what she had one, possibly out of the same morbid fascination that allowed her and her lover to continue unabated, and even draw succor from what they did.
There are two major lines of controversy about the film. The first is speculation over Oshima’s motives — as to whether he was simply using explicit on-camera penetration and fellatio to harvest controversy for its own sake. The second is whether or not the film has redeeming social value — whether it’s a “serious” film or just porn. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize both of these arguments are essentially meaningless. A director can have the best possible motives and make a truly terrible film; he can also have the most cynical and exploitive intentions and make an excellent film. We can (and should) criticize the motives and the resulting product separately. As for “redeeming social value,” never mind that the degree of value, and who does the redeeming, are totally arbitrary. The most wretched XXX video deserves exactly the same free-speech protection as any other film made. Whether or not they are any good is something that needs to be left to an audience that can make up its own mind. The whole argument about “justifying” this or that is a canard, a fig leaf used by people who generally seem to be uncertain of their own motives. The same goes for Salò, or Titicut Follies, and any other film that comes with a cloud of furor around it.
In an essay Oshima wrote, he claimed that his main motive was to create a sexually-explicit movie as a politically provocative gesture. He wanted to generate controversy, and he made that clear to everyone involved from the beginning; it wasn’t as if he picked up the furor that arose and ran with it. To that end his production team had to stage a clever end-run around Japanese censorship: the raw footage was shot in Japan, then developed and edited in France, where the copyright for the whole production was registered and held. Eirin, Japan’s film board, wasn’t amused, but there was little they could do except censor domestic prints of the film. Uncensored copies remain readily available from other countries; one wonders what the point is of upholding such a ban except face-saving and wounded pride. (The most recent DVD edition of the movie in Japan is uncut, but with most every sex act obscured by digital blurs.)
Oshima eventually had his day in court, quite literally: he faced obscenity charges not for the film itself but for a book of stills published for it. Much of his argument was familiar territory to anyone in the post-Ginzburg U.S.: the right to freedom of expression in developed nations, including Japan, should include sexual expression, even if the cost of same is the crassness of conventional pornography (e.g., the skin film Daydream, which embarrassed the powers-that-be in 1964 Japan when it appeared in theaters right as the Tokyo Olympics were in full swing). He was acquitted, but filmmaking in Japan officially remains wedged between the censor’s scissors.
Our empathy for the characters is constantly tested by not only what they do
but how the director chooses to present it.
Another quasi-casualty of the film was Eiko Matsuda; after being vilified in the press for appearing in the film, she eventually left the country for France and then Italy. Richie interviewed her in Paris in his book Public People, Private People, where she shrugged off suggestions that being the target of so much mud had compelled her to leave. Europe was so interesting; she had friends there. Richie saw her as a complement to the real Sada Abe, then living in a Buddhist monastery: “Her Parisian dress was a black as a nun’s habit. She had in her own way become Sada … and there are various kinds of nunneries.” Later in the same book, Richie also sat down with (a very drunk) Oshima on a TV panel show: “The difference between the sexes? I made a film about that, but you didn’t get to see it here in Japan because of the dirty-minded censors who made my pure film filthy.”
Tell people about a film like this and most often they ask: Why see such a thing? I can speak for myself, at least. I was curious about whether or not Senses was any good, apart from whether or not it was erotic; and, yes, I was curious about its eroticism as well. To say otherwise would mean pretending I was less than human. What I found was a film that was fascinating apart from and above its sexual material — and that its sexual material was so stark and bleak that it was more despairing than sexy. This is the only film I’ve seen (thus far) that is as much a turn-off as it is a turn-on, and sometimes for uncomfortably similar reasons.