In the Realm of the Senses.
In the Realm of the Senses has been living in the realm of the censors for over twenty-five years. It has either been banned outright or released in significantly cut versions. Somewhat shockingly, it has found its way to DVD, completely intact, without so much as raising an eyebrow. Whilst responses to Oshima's film have typically converged around the 'art versus pornography' debate, we have no definitive reason for assuming that these are mutually exclusive categories. Both terms are what philosopher W.B. Gallie called essentially contested concepts, and the nature of their classification derives from how (and why) we contest them as such. The essential point is that these mutable notions are ideologically motivated or a matter of rhetoric--we attempt to determine their senses in accordance with our own sensibilities. Essentially contested concepts, then, reveal distinct value commitments, and exhibit our own tendency towards cultural imperialism: we seek to place each other under a preferred rule of thumb, and so, the concepts remain subject(ed) to contestation. Oshima himself contends that his artifact is 'the perfect pornographic film because it cannot be seen. Its existence is pornography--regardless of its content. Once it can be seen, it may no longer be a pornographic film'. In other words, we need to acknowledge the essential contestedness in the first place.
Sada Abe was the penis puppeteer. In 1936, Abe's lover was found dead with his last will and testament missing, although the body was inscribed with the bloody dedication 'together forever'. Abe subsequently walked the streets for three days, carrying her token of love around in order to 'stop feeling lonely'. Abe's 'sensational' life has been the subject of at least two other films--Noboru Tanaka's The True Story of Sada Abe (1975) and Nobuhiko Obayashi's Sada, (1996)--even if Oshima's 1976 In The Realm Of Senses remains the most famous (and least seen). Oshima focuses on the events leading up to the castration, where Abe (an extraordinary Matsuda) goes to work as a prostitute in a 'respectable whorehouse'. The master of the house (Fuji) feels free to manhandle his goods, setting in motion an obsessive sexual relationship that knows no bounds. They attempt to raise sex to a high art form, and their sexual activity ranges from him urinating in her to her asphyxiating him. Chances are you'll never look at a boiled egg or your grandmother in the same way again. In The Realm Of The Senses essentially consists of a series of uninhibited sex acts, with their sexual relations becoming increasingly contested and supplanted through the act of love-making.
The Japanese title of the film perhaps describes this contest best--Ai No Corrida, or Bullfight of Love. During the course of their relationship, it is Abe who is able to take charge by grabbing the bull by the horns. In the Realm of Senses has remained shocking over the years, and perhaps what shocks most is Oshima's dispassionate rendering of a passionate affair. With the eye of a natural scientist, he relentlessly details the two lover's attempts to become masters of their own domain (the realm of five senses). Unfortunately, Oshima restricts our view of Abe to their immediate realm--we do not learn (for example) that she was forced into the sex trade at an early age because Abe's parents abandoned her when she lost her virginity after being raped. Oshima merely alludes to the fact that Abe was working in the brothel to pay off her husband's debts, and their tumultuous affair is simply contextualized via Japan's own charge towards death (if only to show parallel instances of imperialistic acts or empires). Nonetheless, what elevates the film is the way that the sex heightens our own sense of their sexual relations. The physical acts delineate a complex and evolving psychological relationship, requiring the viewer to make sense of their own sensibilities.
Steven Aoun is a doctoral research student in Critical Theory at Monash University, and Metro's regular TV and DVD reviewer.