In the realm of the senses

Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s notorious 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses no longer sends the censors into a moral frenzy but it remains a genuinely shocking work of art.

Also known by its Japanese title Ai no Corrida and alternative French title L’Empire des Sens, Oshima’s film tells the true story of a scandalous amour fou that came to light in 1936 Japan after a woman was found wandering the streets clutching her dead lover’s severed penis. With an explicitness that wouldn’t be seen again in art-house cinema for well over a decade, Oshima explores the intense erotic liaison that led up to this event, a sexual obsession so extreme that it could only end in death.

Eiko Matsuda plays Sada, a young geisha who embarks on an affair with her employer, innkeeper Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji). The couple’s desire for each other is all consuming and hermetic, placing them entirely outside society’s bounds – indeed, they ignore the wider world to such an extent that for much of the film it isn’t clear exactly when the story is taking place.

In the Real of the Senses

Towards the end, a rare glimpse of the social order beyond the bedroom reveals the gathering militarization that would take Japan into war with China the following year. Caught up in their own erotic games, Sada and Kichizo are completely at odds with this world, yet their insatiable passion requires them to raise the stakes ever higher in their search for gratification. In the process, their initial roles are reversed: Sada becomes stronger, Kichizo weaker. Finally, in their quest for the ultimate orgasm, Sada strangles the willing Kichizo in an act or erotic asphyxiation and cuts off his penis as a token.

Oshima holds nothing back in showing this story – famously, the sex is un-simulated. Yet watching the couple’s constant lovemaking is repetitive, boring, numbing, the very opposite of erotic. Which may very well be the point. Sada and Kichizo’s fantasy world is strictly private; it doesn’t just shut out society, it excludes the viewer too.

In the Realm of the Senses is released for the first time on Blu-ray by Studio Canal in a Double-play disc set. Also on release from Studio Canal are two of Oshima’s later films, Empire of Passion (1978), the tale of the murderous passion of a young man and an older married woman; and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1982), the story of a battle of wills in a Japanese POW camp between Ryuichi Sakamoto’s commandant and David Bowie’s stubborn British major.