The debate between art versus porn—where they meet, where they clash, how they can be mated and how they repel each other—is probably not as ancient a concept as we might think. There was certainly a time when sex and erotica were as natural to art as birds are to trees. The ancient Greeks, for instance, had no concept of pornography; explicit sexual art is pervasive in their culture and is even commonly found on their ceramics. There’s little doubt that Ovid’s Amores, or even the Kama Sutra, is as powerful as literature as it is erotica. One can go much further back to the Paleolithic and Mesolithic cave drawings and Venus figurines, which show a fascinating early conception of eroticism as abstract forms.
Japan alone has a rich erotic art heritage that can be found in their earliest mythology, which was later developed into the Shinto system of spirituality. Japanese erotic art especially flourished during the Edo period and was especially prolific in Shunga, or visual erotic art usually practiced in the woodblock form. Shunga literally means “picture of spring,” and it reflects both the Japanese euphemism of spring for sex as well as the positive attitude towards the spiritual, life-giving aspect of sex. In the medium, artists like Kitagawa Utamaro and Suzuki Harunobu are considered master innovators, with the former even having a profound influence on the impressionists. Outside of art, prostitution was legal in Japan for many years, and Japan’s pleasure houses of the Shogunate and later eras were subject to an elaborate hierarchy, populated mostly by the wealthy, upper class.
But after World War II things changed, and prostitution and hardcore pornography became illegal. However, this lead to the birth and proliferation of Japanese “pink” (erotic) films which were produced, especially, by two major studios, Nikkatsu and Shochiku. These films were similar to exploitation films in the US and were never intended for mainstream release, though dedicated theaters for Pink films prospered. Prior to all of this was the true life story of Sada Abe, a woman who was arrested and convicted for erotically asphyxiating her husband, Kichizo Ishida, severing his penis and testicles and taking them with her. Abe, however, became a minor legend in Japan, and she received a great deal of sympathy from the public.
If you combine Japan’s history of erotic art with its contemporary view circa-1975, Japan’s sociopolitical context post-’35, the legend of Sada Abe and Nagisa Ôshima, a renegade director known for being antithetical and even hostilely controversial to Japanese nationalism and mainstream views, one will have the necessary background for approaching In the Realm of the Senses. Such a thorough sociocultural historical context is rarely needed to approach most films, but for one this controversial and provocative, one that breaks taboos both within its own time and, perhaps, even more so today, it’s helpful to analyze it with an eye that’s both wider and deeper. It’s helpful because looking at In the Realm of the Senses and only seeing explicit, pornographic sex is akin to looking at Apocalypse Now and only seeing explicit, gratuitous war.
The film stars the unknown Eiko Matsuda as Sada Abe and the well-known (at the time) Tatsuya Fuji as her lover, Kichizo “Kichi” Ishida. Kichida owns a hotel where Sada, a former prostitute, works. Kichi is a virile man who’s known for having sex with his wife every day before leaving for work, as well as flirting with the women at his hotel. Sada is taken with him from the first moment she sees him, and it’s not long before the two become lovers. But attraction soon turns to obsession as the two move into their own hotel and spend days, weeks and months alone with each other indulging in sex at the expense of outside life. But Sada proves to be insatiable, and even Kichi finds himself unable to keep up with her sexual appetite. Soon their relationship turns dangerous as the two begin to commingle the threat of death and pain with the pleasure of sex.
In a famous essay by Ôshima on experimental pornography, he stated:
“The concept of ‘obscenity’ is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, ‘obscenity’ disappears and there is a certain liberation. When that which one had wanted to see isn’t sufficiently revealed, however, the taboo remains, the feeling of “obscenity” stays, and an even greater ‘obscenity’ comes into being. Pornographic films are thus a testing ground for ‘obscenity,’ and the benefits of pornography are clear. Pornographic cinema should be authorized, immediately and completely. Only thus can ‘obscenity’ be rendered essentially meaningless.”
This excerpt alone reveals Ôshima’s intellectual take on a taboo subject, but his theory is put to practice in the film: from the opening moments there is no doubt that Ôshima does not seek to hide or titillate with sex. If anything, the film’s explicitness desexualizes by demystifying sex, and it’s only once Ôshima crashes through that barrier that he can explore the film’s aesthetic and intellectual themes through sex.
On the aesthetic front, Ôshima is undoubtedly drawing on Japan’s history of erotic art. His frames employ colors and shapes abstractly, frequently taking on the geometric qualities of an Ozu film. Like an Ozu film, Senses is also deceptively simple; Ôshima frequently employs spare frames in which its few subjects stand out against backgrounds of vivid colors and decorative shapes like candles. Senses also has a distinct, almost Hitchcockian, element to its art design that utilizes unnatural light sources and color for dramatic effect. The spaces themselves seem to emphasize the cloistered fantasy-reality which the characters inhabit. The characters frequently freeze as if caught in an Utamaro woodblock. The film’s lack of movement, overall, is a testament to its eschewal of pornography; in pornography bodies connect and move to a mechanical rhythm, while in In the Realm of the Senses they writhe to a psychological and physical obsession.
That sense of movement can be related to the film’s sociological themes, perhaps most potently in the scene where Kichi encounters a group of Japanese military marching proudly down the road being cheered by onlookers as he symbolically marches in the opposite direction. It could be said that Ôshima gets a bit too heavy-handed with the sociopolitical message here, but the subtlety of its expression elsewhere saves him. Even in that scene, the mechanical marching of the rhythm seems to echo the mechanical movement of pornography, and, indeed, Ôshima does seem to stress a certain ironic similarity. If sex and eroticism is cut-off from mainstream Japan, which itself is taking pride in militaristic nationalism, then that separation may prove destructive for both the state and its individuals.
This last point is echoed both on the personal and the sociological level; as Japan is notorious for being an island cut off both literally (geographically) and metaphorically (socially/culturally) from the rest of the world, so Sada and Kichi are sequestered from reality themselves. Their artificially confining physical spaces not only echo their psychological severance from reality into a world of personal fantasy and pleasure, but echo Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the world. But Japan, especially during this period, was also a land of group-think, collectivist nationalism, and the same collectivism that has expelled pornography and sex from the mainstream has expelled Ôshima himself, who is seeking to violently mesh them back together in a work of art that potently portrays their separation.
All of this may be nothing but an empty exercise in art-for-art’s sake or form, but even on a narrative level, there is a haunting darkness to Ôshima’s depiction of Abe and Kichi’s sexual relationship paralleled by Abe’s dream fantasies, which become more abstract, but perhaps more telling, as the film wears on. Ôshima’s depiction of the fantasies takes on an almost Bunuelian surrealist quality, rarely using symbols to signify the shift in realities, likely because there is little separation between Abe’s disturbed psyche and the reality which the film has conjured for her and Kichi. Likewise, the sex becomes more fetishistic, more perverse, more experimental, but equally more dangerous. But unlike in pornography or sexploitation, Ôshima knits these acts with a palpable undercurrent of unease; an almost nightmarish journey into depravity and indulgence.
Ôshima also inventively employs the “senses” of the film’s title, metamorphosing sight, sound, smell, taste and touch through the distorted lens of sexual obsession. Eyes see luminous skin but also dismemberment; ears capture a lovers moan but also inexplicable noises; nostrils inspire perfume but also the stench of death and sexual saturation; mouths will taste food dipped in “love juices,” but also the cold edge of a knife while the flesh reaches not only orgasmic climaxes, but deathly ones in which the two are joined.
In a sense, Ôshima’s intent to meld mainstream Japanese art and pornography together clashes with Japan’s separation of the two, as well as the film’s depiction of that separation. The result is a film that’s as much about the impossibility of a co-existing marriage between pornography and art, pornographic art and society, and the individual and society as it is an attempt to marry these things in the context of the film. But it’s also a fascinating artistic experiment precisely because it will separate those who can’t separate form and context from content. If the sex blinds one to the film’s deeper underpinnings and broader significance then it reveals the type of obdurate censorship that insists that sex and art can’t co-exist. For those who are able (and willing) to look deeper it reveals a willingness to find an almost spiritual, Buddhist oneness with all things in nature, and in art.