Nagisa Oshima Tony Rayns - Essay

Tony Rayns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

None of Oshima's films looks or behaves much like any of the others, and In the Realm of the Senses establishes yet another new tonality in his work…. At first, it is as if Oshima were endorsing his characters' rhapsodic isolation by enshrining it in a form that permits no other frame of reference. A vein of fatalism in the plotting reinforces this impression, giving the film the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Kichi's willing surrender to death is anticipated in two earlier couplings in which he thinks his partner has died, and several prominent appearances of knives and razors prefigure the climactic act of castration.

In fact, of course, Oshima challenges this complacency as surely as he challenged the supposed naturalism of Boy. The obvious authenticity of the lovemaking is offset by the unreality of Sada's insatiable demands and Kichi's hypervirility. (p. 37)

Locating the action of In the Realm of the Senses in 1936 determines the meaning of a number of incidental details, from the fact that the children harassing a tramp in the opening scenes are clutching miniature national flags to the presence of a squad of armed troops who briefly block Kichi's view as he waits for Sada; but it also makes the total absence of socio-political ideas from the film very striking. As Oshima has already demonstrated often (in the closing shot of Death by Hanging, for instance), absence can be as significant as presence.

However provocative such undercurrents may be—and it is clearly not accidental that Oshima should have made an ostensibly apolitical film at a time when Japanese political activists have lapsed into almost complete passivity—the film's primary force remains its exceptionally bold analysis of the implications of true sexual passion…. [Oshima] is interested in Sada and Kichi's sexuality precisely because it reflects the mainstream of the Japanese erotic tradition…. Much in the film—from the use of traditional music throughout to Sada's geisha trick of "laying" an egg from her vagina—evidences the acutely Japanese self-consciousness that makes Oshima's earlier work so troubled, and troubling. (p. 38)

Tony Rayns, "Tony Rayns on 'In the Realm of the Senses'," in Film Comment (copyright © 1976 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center; all rights reserved), Vol. 12, No. 5, September-October, 1976, pp. 37-8.