In the Realm of the Senses (Japan, 1976)

Is it or isn’t it? It’s almost not even worth having this argument anymore. Oshima Nagisa’s controversial 1976 film, In the Realm of the Senses, has sparked plenty of debate in its many years of existence—so much so that it’s almost old hat now to pontificate over its pornness. Yes, that’s what we’re talking about here: is it pornography because it shows actual sex, or is it just arty sex?

The shouts of “It’s porn!” tend to come from the conservative side of the debate, as one would expect. The argument goes that any filmic depiction of sex—be it penetration, fellatio, or ejaculation (all of which occur in the film)—automatically defines the event as pornography, and is thus worth banning or censoring. Or, at the very least, you should feel ashamed for liking it.

The other side, on which I stand, says that just because there’s sex doesn’t mean it’s pornography. Sex isn’t all that icky, really, so what’s the big deal about telling an honest story about consenting adults who happen to have an amorous love life? Just because this film is more honest than most, does that automatically assign it to the status of prurience? For really, isn’t that what defines pornography? Pornography exists to pleasure yourself to. You’d have a difficult time saddling In the Realm of the Senses with that definition.

Based on a true story, Senses centers around the couple of Sada Abe, a former prostitute who’s gone to work as a servant for a wealthy man, and Kichizo Ishida, said wealthy man who finds in Sada an equal in amorousness. The two progress from quick dalliances around the house to a full-blown sexual obsession, squirreled away in an inn and taken to choking each other in coitus to heighten the pleasure. Anyone familiar with the famous, Showa-era source material will already know how it ends; the story thus builds to this climax and provides reasons for how something so outlandish could actually happen.

As difficult as In the Realm of the Senses is to pigeonhole as pornography, it comes pretty damn close, and not just for the fact that it graphically depicts sex. As with “real” porn, Senses suffers from becoming boring. Really, how much sex can you watch in one sitting? Also, Sada Abe is a doctor-certified nymphomaniac, a common porn plot device (common back when porn had plots, at least). This is unfortunate, as it defines the woman’s sexuality as a pathology, while Kichizo Ishida’s is merely manly. (Also, Eiko Matsuda, the actress who played Sada, quickly disappeared into the world of soft core while Tatsuya Fuji, a longtime character actor with kids’ movies under his belt, continues working today.)

I consider Oshima a director with a mission. Like with Gohatto aka Taboo (1999), his film about homosexuality among the samurai of the Shinsengumi corps, Oshima is here making a point as much as he is telling a story. Oshima had to go to France to make the movie he wanted, and was greeted with an obscenity charge in his native Japan upon his return (acquitted). The movie has still never been shown uncensored in Japan, which proves his point rather nicely, I think. That it also tells an interesting story is testament to his abilities as a director. If only it had managed to avoid the same pitfalls as—in the words of Troy McClure— “the finest R-rated movies Europe has to offer.”