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In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima) 1976
In the Realm of the Senses, Oshima's needlessly controversial, sexually explicit 1976 film, is ultimately a difficult viewing experience. The film's narrative, which follows Sada and Kichi-san as their sexual obsession escalates, is so bare that it feels like a lame excuse for the director to attempt to shock us. That he thinks this glorified pornography would be capable of shocking is rather pretentious. If the viewer had no concept of sexual behavior, I suppose it might be interest, but the film's level of degradation and perversion grow quickly tiresome.
What is more interesting is the film's portrayal of Japanese society. It is set in 1936, and Kichi-san, the man in the relationship, has a wife that doesn't much object to his extramarital affairs. When he sets himself up with Sada in a geisha house, there is a complete lack of privacy. They don't seem concerned with hiding their affair. They are consistently spied on and interrupted, and, in one scene, have sex while a troupe of geisha watch. I am not sure if this behavior was the norm, but the only possible defense I can drum up for this film is that attempts to be a historical document of some sort (and the film's concluding voiceover narration confirms it was based on true events.) Still, the majority of what we are made to watch is far from enlightening, entertaining, or erotic.
The film, ultimately, ends up being a historical document in film history. Its fascination with sexual obsession is one-dimensional. The characters are completely encompassed by their passions, and as a result, the work of the actors feels like a collection of non-performances. We know almost nothing of them outside the bedroom. Their passions consume not only each other, but also the film's entire world. I'm not at all opposed to sexual provocation in films. I believe the subject is worthy, and have enjoyed several similarly themed films. Here though, it seems as if the director's "bravery" in remaining so focused on his topic stems mostly from his having nothing of worth to say about it. There is little in the way of directorial judgment on display here, but there's little depth in the situation to be judged at all. That the film was banned in the US shortly after its premiere at the NY Film Festival is a travesty, and it's comforting that it has been re-released. Still, the brouhaha seems to have been over very little, and that is also a travesty.