Still one of the most controversial “mainstream” movies ever made, Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) is a powerful and disturbing tale of sexual obsession set in a small Japanese village in 1936. It was inspired by true, modern day, incident of a deranged woman who was found wandering the streets with her lover’s severed penis in her handbag.
I first saw the movie in a very scratchy print at the old Encore (Third Eye) Cinema in Surry Hills, Sydney, which doesn’t exist anymore. I’d known of the movie for years, but had never seen it as it had been banned in Australasia. In fact, it was banned in many countries for a long time, including Japan. Even after it was filmed the undeveloped footage had to be snuck out of the country to France (who helped finance the movie) to be processed due to Japan’s strict censorship laws.
Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) is married to Toku (Aoi Nakajima). He has several servants, but a new maid, Sada Abe (Eiko Matsudo) catches his eye. She is mischievous and highly-strung and she is equally attracted to Kichizo-san. Before you can say “bullfight of love” (the literal English translation of the Japanese title), they have embarked on a torrid affair. But what begins as a passionate display of forbidden lust quickly becomes obsessive behaviour, as Sada exhibits an unruly fixation on Kichizo’s penis.
She becomes a nymphomaniac, and he can barely keep up with her sexual demands. Her strangely intense desire excites him and he encourages her. The other maids are forced to turn a blind eye. But when Kichizo indulges in sex with his wife Sada becomes jealous and threatens to kill her master. Kichizo takes it all in his stride, but he knows Sada provides him with a level of passion that surpasses anything, so he surrenders to her carnal pleas.
The intensity of the bond increases, involving strangulation during sexual intercourse. At first Sada asks Kichizo to strangle her, but he can’t bear to see her in discomfort, so the tables are turned and she strangles Kichizo in order to enhance Kichizo’s erection. The denouement isn’t entirely surprising, considering the fragility of Sada’s psyche. Her obsession can only lead to an act of extreme possession, and this is fueled by Kichizo’s own journey from dominance to subservience. In order to be sublimely happy, all happiness must be consumed. Kichizo allows her to bind his hands, she tightens the handkerchief around his throat, she feels him deep within her, her desire beyond control…
Sexual obsession had never been portrayed with such ferocious authenticity as it is in this movie. In fact, it was the first major motion picture outside of the hardcore porn industry to feature actual sex between the actors: vaginal penetration, fellatio, and ejaculation. Unsimulated sexual activity is featured more and more in mainstream movies, but in 1976 this was unheard of.
Despite the movie’s graphic intensity, and the overall themes of pleasure and pain, of abuse of power, albeit consensual, the Australasian DVD release of the movie is apparently censored in a couple of scenes, both involving sexual violation; one scene where Sado interferes with a young boy, and another where several of the maids assault another maid with a wooden dildo.
The whole movie plays as a kind of chamber piece, adult theatre. The lead performances, brave and unfettered, are excellent. The style is very precise, the atmosphere claustrophobic, but there are parts where the narrative drags in a mire of sexual repetition. Ultimately, it’s a most curious mélange of eroticism and repulsion.
— film review by Bryn Tilly of cultprojections.com