Originally released in 1976, Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses is still banned for obscenity in its director's native country, Japan. Based on an infamous 1936 incident in which Sada Abe erotically strangled her lover, cut off his penis and testicles, and carried them around until her arrest, Oshima's film does more than just attack the mores of Japanese society. It also breaks down notions of obscenity.
“The concept of ‘obscenity’ is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at,” Oshima writes in his essay “Theory of Experimental Pornographic Film.” “When we feel that everything has been revealed, ‘obscenity’ disappears and there is a certain liberation.” By including scenes of hardcore sexuality, Oshima graphically illustrates the all-consuming love raging between Sada (Eiko Matsuda) and her lover, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji). But Oshima is not trying to arouse his audience. Despite all its nudity and countless shots of penises, vaginas, and semen, In the Realm of the Senses is decidedly unsexy. Rather, Oshima is allowing us to watch two individuals completely lost in one another. This film not about giving us an erection. It is about challenging a society that is embarrassed for having an erection in the first place.
Sada works as a maid in Kichizo’s home. After she spies him making love to his wife, she seduces the more-than-willing Kichizo. As their affair intensifies, Sada and Kichizo seem to abandon any and all mundane duties, spending as much time as possible in bed. The couple's only true happiness comes during sex, but to achieve that felicity, the two must remove themselves from society (fucking in public, as you might imagine, was even less acceptable in 30s Japan than it is in 21st-century America). While the rest of Japan is embroiled in anxiety over the impending World War, Sada and Kichizo are enmeshed “in the realm of the senses”; when they come together, it's like two serpents devouring one another.
So what separates In the Realm of the Senses from any other pornographic film? According to Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, in an essay that accompanies the Criterion DVD, “In pornographic films, the intent is to sexually inflame the viewer… the sexual acts are not photographed in any considered fashion.” Oshima's sex scenes, which range from acrobatic to auto-erotic to sadomasochistic, are shot matter-of-factly. In the Realm of the Senses, also does feature a dense narrative, one that takes on Imperialist Japan and the nation’s shuttered attitudes toward sex. Films that are simply pornographic care nothing for story or intent. Those films revel in the rutting and little else. Here, as the characters move further inward and away from society, each becomes addicted to the other's body. And that is precisely the point of the film. Like the two snakes devouring one another, Sada and Kichizo become so intertwined that their love will eventually devour them. On numerous occasions, Sada threatens to kill or dismember Kichizo if he even thinks of leaving her. Finally, when he reaches such a violent extreme that he cannot perform without being choked, Sada kills him.
Despite its age, In the Realm of the Senses remains both fascinating and shocking. Some of the sex scenes are almost too perverted to stomach, such as when Kichizo places a hardboiled egg inside Sada’s vagina, forces her to push it out as if giving birth to the white orb, and then proceeds to eat it. But Oshima wants us to strip away our notions of perversion. Perversion leads to social alienation, and it is such societal estrangement that Oshima is fighting against. Laws against or other social controls on obscenity, he argues, should not even exist in an advanced society.
During the film's 1978 obscenity trial, Oshima argued, “Isn’t Japan part of the free world? Is not freedom one of the universal principles of humanity, including freedom of sexual expression?” Even though he would later be acquitted, Oshima’s vision of sexual freedom still does not exist in any free-thinking democracy. Sure, the Japanese do live in relative sexual autonomy, the role of sex a much more prominent part of their society than 100 years ago, but there are still taboos. Pubic hair is blurred out in Japanese porno films and In the Realm of the Senses still remains unavailable, making it a still relevant, subversive film so many years later.