Oshima's Politico-Erotica Tough on 'Senses'

Directed by: Nagisa Oshima, Runtime: 109 minutes
Grade: C+

The term "experimental film" can refer to many things. It can mean a collage of images thrown together to try and invoke a reaction, or it can be a filmmaker's stab at telling a story not often told. Few avant-garde pictures like these are as deeply unsettling and boundary-breaking as In the Realm of the Senses (also known as Empire of Senses, or L'empire des sens), a work of true water-testing from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima. Containing lengthy expanses of graphic, real sexual intercourse and an overall sense of erotic obsession, it's a true test on the nerves that grows exponentially more difficult to absorb with the viewer's closed-mindedness. However, once you've become desensitized to its garishness, the dynamic power struggle between the two leads builds into a compelling exercise in sensory conditioning and gender etiquette deconstruction -- all engulfed in an erotic tone that lingers long afterwards.

Largely a visual work and light on plot, In the Realm of the Senses tells the true story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a folk hero of sorts in Japan for her obsessive relationship with a married man. It starts as a casual affair between her, a servant, and her employer, an energetic and sex-driven man with near endless libido, which transforms as Sada Abe's true nature seeps into the picture. She's now taken on an iconic presence in Japan, hinged on the events that take place once the two start to dive deeper into their relationship. As Sada Abe explains her "acute sensitivity" to her lover and builds an obsession with his genitalia, the two begin to explore some of the darker recesses of sexuality -- namely violence and asphyxiation. This level of intensity has etched a place for it in cinematic history as one of the more controversial stories to be caught on film, proven by its French co-production title since Nagisa Oshima couldn't show it uncensored in his

From their first sexual encounter, Oshima makes it clear that he doesn't plan on turning heads away from their encounters. The exact opposite, actually; he carries firm belief in the concept of breaking taboos by forcing one's self to witness that which they fear, in a sense, which builds In the Realm of the Senses into a very difficult film to watch. He knows, without a doubt, that he's likely going to unsettle most people that watch the film, which happens to be his aim. The film is probably the most widely-known example of "experimental erotica", as it forces their incensed and obsessive sexuality into our line of sight in never-ending lengths of oral and full-blown sex. It remains, however, oddly intoxicating from start to finish -- not because of its capacity for arousal, but more for the way that it tinkers with the audience's mind and allows core emotionality to pour through while watching their torrid affair.

Few films actually match with the statement "you've got to see it to believe it", but this is certainly one of those films. Whether you'll want to see it again, however, is another personal decision.Eventually, the sights and sounds of their carnal relationship begin to contort into an oddly idyllic playground for their obsession. It's also the time that the couple has grown accustomed to the current state of their consuming relationship -- and takes their relationship a step further. Determined film-watchers will take that step with them, which flows right along with what Nagisa Oshima desires with In the Realm of the Senses. Every inch that we take further into their "realm" means another one that cannot be taken backwards, denting and construing the perception that we hold for their acts. It exemplifies the term: "what has been seen cannot be unseen". In most cases, that's used in a negative connotation. In Oshima's eyes, it's a way of evolving his audience's social perception by bombarding them with visually stunning images -- ones that remain, from start to finish, highly human in nature.

What separates In the Realm of the Senses from being strictly erotica, aside from the splendid cinematography, is the instinctive and fluid nature of the actors' performances. Let's not even address their non-simulated intercourse here, but their dramatic abilities. Both Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji carry a surprisingly natural rhythm, one heightened by their experience and their roles in the relationship. Sada Abe is feral and dominant by nature, which could easily be overplayed by a seasoned actress. This happens to be Yoshiyuki Kazuko's first role, one of only a few that she'd participate in before disappearing into Europe. Her lack of theatrical "poise" giver Sada Abe a tangible presence, one that feels surprisingly real. Tatsuya Fuji plays off of her untamed nature exceedingly well as the recessive element in their relationship, containing his masculinity in a way that harnesses both temerity and surrender. Their interplay remains involving and, in some instances, humorous in an array of very dark manners.

Whether In the Realm of the Senses is obscene, artistic, or somewhere in between is all subjective, but it's undeniably both a challenge and a significant marker of defiance in the world of Japanese cinema at the time. Nagisa Oshima thrives on taking his audience a step further than they're comfortable in going, which makes it a literal eye-widening experience. After witnessing the conclusion of Sada Abe's dangerous obsession, it's near impossible to shake these images from the mind. Few films actually match with the statement "you've got to see it to believe it", but this is certainly one of those films. Whether you'll want to see it again, however, is another personal decision. To say the least, In the Realm of the Senses is a compelling and well-performed portrait of sexual fixation and relationship power structure -- and an important film for experimental filmmaking, as it truly tests the boundaries separating taboo from normalcy.


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