Thanks to Courtney Small for this addition to The Forgotten series. You can find more of Courtney’s writing at Cinema Axis [Ed].
One of the benefits of having a controversial film like 50 Shades of Grey dominate the box office is that it gets people talking about a subject that has been on my mind a lot recently: Sex. Let me clarify as not to come off as a pervert – though my recent admission on Twitter to enjoying trashy films like Wild Orchid and The Hot Spot may suggest otherwise – my thoughts are not so much of the act itself, but rather focused on the way it is portrayed on-screen. I have been asking myself for days where does the line between art and pornography begin? Is their art in porn? I am sure Jack Horner, Burt Reynolds’ character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to the porn industry Boogie Nights, would argue there is. Conversely, can there be porn within art? Are they both intertwined in a complicated and passionate embrace?
The interesting thing is that these questions were not sparked by a visit to risqué website or an adult specialty store. No it was a simple trip to the local library that sent me down the sexually explicit rabbit hole. While scanning the library DVD shelves like a pirate searching for buried treasures, my eyes locked in on Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses. Having first encountered the works of Ôshima at TIFF last year, when his Cruel Story of Youth was shown as a free screening, I was intrigued to observe what the rest of his canon had to offer. Knowing little going in, outside of the blurb on the DVD box stating the film was ”less a work of pornography than of politics”, I assumed In the Realm of the Senses would be one of those controversial 70’s films that would seem tame by today’s standards.
Boy was I wrong.
Nearly 40 years after its initial release, and in an age where it is easy to access sexually graphic content online, In the Realm of the Senses still carries jaw-dropping bravado. The sexuality on display is laced in so much unrelenting grime that for a brief moment I pondered if the film would have been better suited on the “adult only” back shelves of the local mom and pop DVD store, rather than the library shelf where it sat amongst family entertainment like Mike Myers’ The Cat in the Hat and Marvel’s Thor?
In the Realm of the Senses puts the audience in an uncomfortable position where praising it or discrediting it reveals more about the viewer than it does the film. For to admit its place in cinema one must acknowledge the explicit, dare I say pornographic, aspects that the film embraces. Ôshima’s film is a work of art, even if it is hard to justify why at certain points.
The film, shockingly based on real events, tells the torrid love affair between a servant, Sade Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and her married master Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuy Fuji). What starts out as a passionate affair descends into an unhealthy sexual obsession that consumes them both in dangerous ways. Constantly seeking the ultimate height of pleasure, they soon discover that not even death can stop their sexual thirst. What is most intriguing about the affair is the way society rallied around Sade. She was the first Japanese woman whose sexual exploits were made public in the media. She became a symbol for females who were forced to keep their sexuality repressed for centuries.
Unfolding in 1936, the year where Japan not only signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany, but also increased it military presence within the country, Sade and Kichizo’s tale is almost a slap in the face to the changes going on in the world outside of their secluded den of love. Unfortunately, the political subtext often becomes overshadowed by the unflinching waves of eroticism that is at the film’s forefront.
While Nagisa Ôshima is neither the first nor the last director to feature actual sex on screen, Lars von Trier most recently utilized this technique, albeit with some digital help, in 2014’s Nymphomaniac, he wipes away the sheen that often comes with dramatization of illicit affairs. This is not the steamy soft focused depiction found in films like 2002’s Unfaithful, but rather a stripped to the bone portrayal of addiction.
Similar to the staff at the retreat where Sade and Kichizo lock themselves away for days, foregoing showers and food in favor of carnal desire, the audience is not titillated, but disgusted by the sight. Ôshima dares the viewer to turn away from the uninhibited acts on display though he knows they cannot. Unlike “pink films”, Japanese films known for their softcore pornographic content, Ôshima’s film not only aspires to be, but actually goes much further from a graphic standpoint, In the Realm of the Senses transcends the average skin flick.
It is a bold take on addiction in a time of cultural change that would not work without Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuy Fuji’s brave performances. It is porn? At times yes, but it is also a work of art. As disturbing and unflinching as the subject matter is, the film lingers in the viewer’s mind. However, there is no post-coital glow, just chilling remnants of a couple’s dangerous descent. In the Realm of the Senses is not a film for everyone, in fact it will probably have more detractors than those in its corner, but it is an intriguing and daring work that still packs a powerful punch nearly four decades later. One cannot help but think that this was the type of film Jack Horner wished he could have made.
By Courtney Small.
Follow Courtney on Twitter @SmallMind