Nagisa Oshima, “Ai no korida / In the Realm of the Senses” (1976)
Forty years ago this film was made and it still has the power to shock current audiences with its explicit sexual scenes, the intense sexual obsessions, and the asphyxiophilia leading to the shocking climax and aftermath. For much of its running time though, “In the Realm …” can be boring and excruciating to watch: the plot is very basic and repetitive, and only really gets going towards the end when its protagonist and antagonist start exploring the extremes of their sexual passion; and the characters themselves tend to be one-dimensional and underdeveloped.
The plot is based on an actual historical case in Japan during the 1930s and the names of the two main characters are unchanged from those of the original doomed lovers. Kichi Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) runs an inn in Tokyo where Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) comes to work as a waitress. The two are attracted to each other and in no time at all have commenced an affair even though Ishida is already married. Initially in their affair the two experiment sexually and indulge one another but gradually their affair becomes all-consuming: Ishida leaves his wife and Sada becomes intensely jealous and obsessive to the point of threatening to kill Ishida if he returns to his wife or sleeps with another woman. Their affair soon occupies their attention almost daily and their sexual experimentation becomes ever more extreme with Ishida suggesting to Sada that she try strangling him to excite him sexually. Sada cannot conceive of life and happiness without Ishida and the emotions this arouses together with the erotic strangling has horrific if entirely predictable consequences for the two lovers.
As a character study, the film doesn’t work very well: there are early indications that Sada has been a prostitute in the past and is possessed of a powerful sexuality that draws men to her. She can also be easily roused to anger and strong emotions, and her anger may respect no human-made boundaries. It’s apparent that life for a passionate young woman in the Japan of the 1930s, a hierarchical and strongly conformist society then passing into militarism and fascism, is going to be very difficult. Unfortunately Oshima does not emphasise the conflict between Sada’s nature and the society that would try to turn her into a meek and submissive woman much at all. By contrast Ishida is a curiously passive man who readily gives in to Sada’s demands to the point of leaving his wife and any children they already have, and to neglect his business. This surely would have been enough to earn the couple considerable social opprobrium and ostracism. As it is, the affair forces Sada to take up prostitution again at various points in the film. With the way Oshima has framed the narrative though, focusing exclusively on the intense affair and Sada’s obsession with continuing it, viewers see nothing of the effect it has on Ishida and Sada’s ability to cope and survive, and on the people most affected by the relationship; and this narrow focus may be considered a major defect of the film.
The film’s themes are more important than its plot or its character development, superficial though the latter is: through Sada and Ishida’s obsession, Oshima raises the question of how far people can go to pursue happiness and fulfillment in an increasingly repressive society. At first their obsession provides Sada and Ishida with some measure of happiness, connection and freedom to express and explore themselves, psychologically as well as physically; but over time it becomes a destructive and paradoxically enslaving addiction for both. While the two pursue their passion, the outside world comes to see them as strange and perverted though curiously it makes no attempt to separate them. The sexual experimentation (and its explicitness and increasingly extreme character) becomes a revolt against political and sexual oppression; at the same time this revolt isolates Sada and Ishida from the rest of humanity so as rebellions go, it is a rather pathetic one. This alienation could have been made more devastating had Oshima included something of the outside world’s opinion of the affair through Ishida’s wife and employees, or through the rural inns the couple flees to, to conduct their relationship.
The film can be seen as a criticism of the roles men and women are or were expected to play in Japanese society: Sada, a poor working girl and prostitute, plays the active role in the relationship while Ishida, her employer and social superior, follows her lead. Again the sexual experimentation represents a break with the expectations of what is appropriate behaviour for men and women in sexual relationships, and gives a glimpse of an alternate world where people are free to express themselves and explore new identities free of gender limitations.
While the film is sexually graphic, I don’t see it as a pornographic film: the sex on display illustrates the couple’s break with and alienation from society, and it is not at all titillating or arousing. Whereas pornography seeks to enforce the status quo in gender and class relations, “In the Realm …” goes out of its way to question and criticise what pornography accepts without question. This is a film of two people trying to find inner peace, happiness and freedom in a world marching towards war and repression.