In the Realm of the Senses Review
1976, 102 minutes, Rated NC-17
Starring Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, In the Realm of the Senses is a film by Nagisa Ôshima, and examines the line between pornography and art. It is one of the most controversial films ever made. It is loosely based on the story of Sada Abe, a woman who falls so madly in love with her employer that she strangles and castrates him. Yes, this is a very lurid film, but it also is one so well done, that one may get lost in it. And yes, all of the sex in this film is unsimulated. Does this make the film a porno? Many have argued that it does. But, many, like me, argue that it does not. Why is this nothing more than a piece of porn? There is a very long and laborious explanation that I could give you, but I will keep it nice and short. This is not porn because its purpose is not to turn people on. It is better than that. This film is an examination of a love affair and sexual obsession that just happens to be very explicit. And, that frankness is refreshing. Most films in the modern day would not dare explore the ideas that this film does and would never show what this film does. I have always said that frankness is what makes a film good. No sugar coating, no phoniness. Just cold, hard facts. And this is exactly what Oshima serves up in this erotic delight.
First off, I have to say that I was particularly impressed with the performance of Eiko Matsuda as Sada. She shows depth as an actress in this film. She is at once a delicate geisha, and then a mad lover. But, even as a mad lover, she is still the delicate geisha. The fact that Matsuda could show this throughout the film is astounding.
But, as great as Matsuda's performance is, the real strength of the film is its exploration of sexual obsession, a taboo topic even to this day. What this film shows is that obsession is gradual and like the sexual episodes depicted in this film, they eventually come to a shocking and sudden climax. In the film, sex and obsession are directly linked. As Sada finds her final climax in the film, the obsession has peaked also. Also, the film's depiction of madness and obsession is perfect. For example, in one scene (the one that tips the viewer off that something Sada is becoming infatuated), Sada leaves for the day and lightly tells one of the geishas to not let her lover out. This is nothing extreme, but still a subtle hint. Then, as the film wears on, Sada wants to see what her lover does to his wife in bed and her need for sex grows. Eventually, she can scarcely go for a short amount of time without having sex. This is what leads to the final act. Also, the film asks the question of when does love turn into obsession? Think about that when you view this film.
On a different note, the photography of In the Realm of the Senses is an achievement in itself. The photography perfectly captures the mood of the film. In one specific scene near the beginning of the film, there are images of a courtyard with snow falling. The snow and the courtyard look very soft and delicate. They are very similar to Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography in McCabe & Mrs. Miller in which he flash exposed the film to give it an old, and therefore, soft feel. Also, the filming of the sex scenes is very soft. The cinematographer placed his camera in the right spots. He shows explicit views of the sex, but never makes it too obvious. These views seem natural and that is another reason why this film is not another dumb, cheap porno film.
In addition, the mise-en-scène of this film is very nice as its sets and props never take the viewer's attention off of the actors. However, it is still just sumptuous enough to fill out the frame and give the film a very rich feel.
Overall, In the Realm of the Senses is a very good film that could easily have been another piece of porn, but was made so well that it wasn't. I would definitely recommend this film to adventurous foreign film fans or film scholars, but for the rest of you out there, think twice before viewing this film.