Nagisa Oshima

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RUTH McCORMICK

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In [In the Realm of the Senses], we witness a relationship between two people, who neither put on an exhibitionistic show for us, nor make us feel embarrassed that we may be spying on them. This, to my mind, is a major breakthrough in the depiction of eroticism in film. There is no fetishism of parts of the body; the sex scenes between the two, photographed from every conceivable angle, are never voyeuristic, and neither partner is objectified by the camera. In each scene, Oshima creates a total gestalt; the shots, mostly long and static, are composed so as to place the two protagonists at the center of simple, stunning settings, realistic without ever ceding to the peurile naturalism of most porno films….

Some women have complained that the film's depiction of female sexuality—in that Sada is almost constantly the aggressor, the lover, whereas Kichi remains for the most part the passive recipient of her attentions—is a male fantasy. Now, while I doubt most men would object to receiving a certain amount of such attention, this is not the point. In the first place, in the context of the story, both as told in court by the real Sada and in Oshima's retelling, Sada was, in fact, the more aggressive. After all, it was indeed Kichi whose desire it was to receive death at the height of pleasure, while Sada chose to survive and, in fact, to continue her life of pleasure after four years of incarceration. Secondly, in most hardcore porno, it is the woman who is represented as the object of male lust, as the passive recipient of whatever the men choose to do to her or tell her to do. Sada's enthusiasm, her general control of the situation, could also be seen as a female fantasy….

Kichi does indeed desire death, but not pain. When he finally asks Sada to kill him, he does so in a roundabout way (she had previously come close to strangling him to increase his pleasure at the moment of orgasm), saying, "If you start, don't stop. It hurts too much afterwards." Kichi sees death as a form of transcendence—the only one possible as a higher stage of the total sexual gratification he has already experienced. (p. 33)

Is In the Realm of the Senses political? In its almost total avoidance of the public sphere, what is its view of the world? Neither of the characters ever mentions the Emperor, the military, Manchuria, or in fact anything that does not relate directly to their intimate personal lives. How unlike most Japanese of their time they must have been! The point is made very clearly in one brief sequence, in which Kichi, strolling along the street on his way to meet Sada, totally ignores a batallion of marching soldiers, while other members of the populace greet them with cheers and waving flags…. The flags and uniforms have no relevance for Kichi; his erotic impulses remain totally unsublimated and so his death instinct is never channeled, as was the case with most Japanese men of the period, into any desire to kill, to conquer, to be a hero.

It could be argued, perhaps, that people like Sada and Kichi, so removed from the mainstream of society, are far from being revolutionaries. Perhaps, but they are certainly not potential counter-revolutionaries! Their self-involvement, their quest for gratification, childlike in many ways, becomes a moment of negation of the prevailing proto-fascist order. (pp. 33-4)

The aesthetic of Senses is deliberately and pervasively Japanese, 'purified' as it were, of Western influences. The photography is dark and,...

(This entire section contains 932 words.)

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at the same time, luminous; this is a world of tatami, shuji and futons, of samisen and koto music. In the same sense, one could say that the pornography of the film is purified of any hint of the exhibitionism, objectification of 'work ethic' of its Western counterparts.

It is the interludes between Sada and Kichi's erotic bouts that hold the film together and give it its unique narrative texture, and these almost all feature either the elderly or children….

The sequences involving the old people serve, as it were, as intimations of mortality, both presaging Kichi's death, and as reminders to the audience that they, too, will one day be old, and that sexuality exists as long as there is life—Eros always ends in Thanatos. If we are tempted to laugh at the sexuality of the old …, the only way we will escape the same situation is through the dubious good fortune, as with Kichi, of an early death. By the same token, the children serve, as they have before with Oshima, to represent life and renewal…. It would seem that in [the] last fantasy of Sada, that Kichi, as precious as he is to her, represents a death, while the little girl, an image perhaps of Sada herself, is life. She chooses life. In the dream, in the promesse de bonheur of childhood and play, lies the possibility of a liberating reality.

Herein lies the politics of Oshima's least 'political' film. At once the fulfillment of his wish to break the taboos set up by puritanical bourgeois civilization to ensure its own survival through sexual repression and the ideology of the family, it is, dialectically, a celebration of the life force and, in a period of political inactivity, when the forces of reaction seem to have won another temporary victory in our world, a glimpse of utopia. (p. 34)

Ruth McCormick, "'In the Realm of the Senses'," in Cinéaste (copyright © 1977 by Gary Crowdus), Vol. VII, No. 4, Winter, 1976–77, pp. 32-4.

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