The polymorphous perversity and technical pornography of Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses earned it vigorous censorship in many countries, including our own. There's no getting around the film's unflinching sexuality: it's a film for which the term "sex scene" is redundant: scenes that aren't sex scenes are certainly the rare exception. Sex is the point: the overwhelming, addictive power of orgasmic pleasure and the unfortunate truth that one can have too much of a good thing.
Set in 1936, Oshima's film recounts—in its own fictionalized way—the true story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), sexual partners whose marathon love-making ended in tragedy (Matsuda and Fuji bravely perform unsimulated sex and emotional vulnerablity). Once told by a doctor that she's "acutely sensitive," former prostitute Sada invariably becomes intoxicated with sexual pleasure, and her voracious lovemaking pushes physical boundaries, from biting, pinching and slapping to auto-erotic asphyxiation to creative breaches of body cavities (including the insertion of an egg where the sun don't shine). There's a chance that she meets her match in Kichizo, the owner of the hotel where she works as a maid. Once they are in each other's throes, they don't eat, don't sleep, don't clean: at one point, she won't even grant him a moment to pee (unless he does it inside her). According to Sada, Kichizo's penis belongs to her. In turn, Kichizo offers, "My body is yours; do as you please with it."
Naturally, nearly all of the dialogue is comprised of pillow talk, much of it intimations or overt threats of violence and mortal carnage. Sada makes constant references to death, ever linked to orgasm ("le petit mort" to the French). Would ecstatic pleasure, taken to its fullest extreme, include both sex and death? "I guess you have to approach death to feel the height of ecstasy," Sada muses, and the coupling quickly takes on sado-masochistic tones. The relationship incorporates the universal fantasy of being wanted intensely by a beautiful sexual partner, but like Icarus flying too close to the sun, these lovers destroy themselves in pursuit of the fullness of their desire. As with a drug, an excalation is required to maintain a high.
The film, by its nature, implicates the audience by encouraging compulsive voyeurism; Oshima is well aware that the sensational story set off a media frenzy stoked by an insatiable public. Like his characters, Oshima is determined to explore and transgress sexual boundaries, if they even exist, by posing a challenge to conventional morality. A scene of Kichizo walking the opposite direction of Japanese troops marching off to duty intriguingly places the characters apart from conventional wisdom and socially acceptable violence. Back within the paper walls of their private sexual universe (which Oshima supplies with a suggestion of prison bars), the lovers are not as free as their libertine sexuality might make them appear. For one thing, jealousy rears its ugly head: desire is possessive, and for ultimate heterosexual give-and-take, Sada has to wield her own penetrative power.
Criterion's A/V rendering of In the Realm of the Senses is perfection, authentically reproducing the filmmaker's intentions with a clean, crisp, colorful image and original monaural sound. Visual detail is astonishing, easily besting any previous DVD iteration, and the colors are deep and rich. The spotless, film-like image is complemented by the well-balanced uncompressed mono track.
As is their custom, Criterion supplies a wealth of contextual material. "Oshima and His Actors" (5:38, HD) is a 1976 Belgian TV interview with director Nagisa Oshima and his leading actors Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda.
"Tatsuya Fuji" (17:17, HD) is a 2008 Criterion exclusive interview.
The 2003 program "Recalling the Film" (38:48, HD) features interviews with production coordinator Hayao Shibata, line producer Koji Wakamatsu, assistant director Yoichi Sai, and film distributor Yoko Asakura.
Approximately six minutes representing trims from six scenes comprise "Deleted Footage" (12:20, HD).
Last up is the "U.S. Trailer" (2:20, HD).
Criterion also includes a 38-page booklet including film credits, tech specs, and two important essays on the film: Donald Richie's “Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography” and the director's own writings, collected as “Nagisa Oshima on In the Realm of the Senses.”
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