Nagisa Oshima

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Michael Silverman

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[Ostensibly, L'Empire des Sens (In the Realm of the Senses)] can be seen as a fuck film; indeed, it is so explicit that it may never be shown in "respectable" art houses or at festivals subject to discreet censorship. Its spectacle inheres in the unremitting display of sexuality, so that an occasional exterior shot seems a lapse in concentration…. The lovers' pact is the unqualified prolongation of desire; and whereas in a romantic film … we understand that desire may be kept alive as memory which nourishes one partner after the other's death, here a lapse into sleep or a soft penis signal a point of absolute termination Oshima's persistent narrowing denies any romantic or metaphysical gesture the opportunity of replacing the physical fact.

In part this critique of romantic desire and its replacement by the strictly sexual is marked by a restriction and isolation from any social network which might impinge upon sexual activity, making complicated demands. Thus, the woman's objection to the man's wife may be seen as a mark of traditional jealousy, but also as a wish to deny the husband a context apart from the absolutely sexual. (p. 58)

The film rigorously exposes the aim of possession: a placing of the other within a heavily restricted system of exchange, a construction of the object of desire as an enacting substitute for the fears of the self's own death…. Finally, the object of desire must die in order to insure the permanence of desire. This death is endlessly repeatable, constantly re-enforceable, and desire remains as a constantly affirmed element of the symbolic….

In L'Empire des Sens the man's passivity renders him mysterious. As the object of desire he suggests depth of feeling which the woman, in the grip of obsession, cannot reach. At first his growing passivity seems intended to parallel the behavior prescribed for the traditional gentle lover of pillow books and poems; finally, though, he seems intent on preserving a mystery. (p. 60)

The severing of the penis and testicles after death … is an admission of desire's end, as well as a fetishizing of that desire's sign. Since the act is seen as pathetically insufficient, the mystery of desire has been preserved through death. We may suspect that the literal nature of possession in this instance permits the re-integration of the symbolic…. We may wish to say that desire for the possession of images cannot surely involve such extremity…. Still, we may be drawn by this film to put into question such problems as the preservation in wish form of a sexual and scopophilic imaginary, the role played by death in the economy of desire and the residence of the code of possession within various mental and social activities, including watching and talking about this extremely desirable film. (p. 61)

Michael Silverman, "Reviews: 'L'empire des sens'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1977 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXX, No. 2, Winter, 1976–77, pp. 58-61.

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