Unprecedented, uninhibited and scandalous. Nothing is comparable to In The Realm of The Senses. It can certainly be compared to the great films that were created during the political and erotic revolution of the 1970s, such as 'Last Tango in Paris' (1972), 'The Mother and the Whore (1973)', 'The Big Feast '(1973), 'Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom' (1975). However, it is only this film that is seen entirely from the perspective of female desire. It is a film that speaks to women and it dared to do what nobody had ever done on the big screen. It puts the sexual act back into a position of prominence. It shows what must not be seen, what society wants to be hidden, and makes art out of it.
The story is simple. Sada (Eiko Matsuda), a young prostitute who has become a servant, and the boss of the inn where she works, Kichi (Tatsuya Fuji), make love in numerous bedrooms, as well as in backyards, out on the streets, in the rain, day and night, during an unspecified period of time until she strangles him out of love for him and emasculates him. They talk very little. She constantly wants to have an orgasm and to begin again immediately after having one - yet more, even better, as if it were the first time. 'Like a Virgin', as Madonna would say – or Tarantino in 'Reservoir Dogs'. Except that here, the orgasm goes side by side with murderous desires as the ultimate form of possession. It is precisely this promise of being killed which bewitches Kichi. He lets himself slip into this one-way passion with a melancholic smile, while offering his lover, whose passionate ecstasies are closely akin to those of the mystics, an inexhaustible virility. He often sings sad melodies while caressing her. Emotion emerges from every shot, even from their silent faces, tensed towards the camera, expressing pain or pleasure. It moves you deeply.
The film is still censored in Japan and never has the representation of sexuality had such an impact on society. People from Jacques Lacan to Buñuel to Madonna think that it is the absolute film. Why? Because it shows a woman who is completely in love with her lover's penis, who spends her time caressing it, taking it into her mouth, holding it, all so smoothly and naturally and without using body doubles. They are there in front of us and they really are making love. It could make you feel shocked and uneasy, but nothing is degrading in this search for absolute love.
When Oshima was shooting his film, the Japanese cinema had several times already picked up the story of this event, which had excited the country in the 1930s. He adapted it into a ceremony of sex and death, from which you can only emerge stupefied. In this enclosed space, fire and ice, desire and asceticism are mixed up together. The more that the two lovers escape from reality, the more reality seems unbearable to them. In this year of 1936, when Japan was getting ready to invade China, Kichi, instead of supporting the nationalist ideal, moves, his head down, along a battalion of soldiers going in the opposite direction, like a shadow, preferring to die of love rather than in war. Oshima is sending his own image back to 1970s Japan. Sada and Kichi offer a model of absolute protest in the face of this society which was priding itself on its 'economic miracle'. Their desire has no other goal but itself. They refuse to produce and to reproduce. They cannot be assimilated.
Today more than ever, their transgression is necessary for us. Pornography has invaded everything and sex is a consumer object, for which any capacity for fascination is being lost. 'In The Realm of The Senses' is a call for us to once again explore the mysteries of our senses.
Céline GAILLEURD makes documentaries on the history of the cinema and teaches at the University of Paris 8.