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on May 16, 2004
Nagisa Oshima has achieved what few other directors have managed in dealing with the very touchy subject of sex, in this instance, with sexual obsession. If you plan to watch this movie for a cheap sexual thrill, you will be most disappointed. Oshima has drawn from a real incident reported in a 1936 Japanese newspaper. The film centers around the love between two people expressed physically, graphically, into realms of the senses where few dare to tread. And with good reason. This is a very intense film as it progresses from the attraction of two people through increasing experimentation in an effort not only to express their passion but to try to find the outer most limits of passion itself. Oshima must have had something metaphorical in mind but the journey as chronicled in the film also has retained the feel of the specifics. It's quirkey and eccentric. The backdrop of the story is as interesting as the story itself. It is an amazing spectacle to observe, giving the viewer a perspective on Japanese life not usually rendered but often alluded to in some historical accounts. One wonders what this experience must have been like for the actors. Oshima has managed what I have always believed should be done in order to treat the subject of sex fully and without shrinking from its' less savory aspects. This is serious minded erotica and quite unlike anything else on screen. The only other film I can recall that compares at all is "Taxi Zum Klo" which was autobiographical and starred a number of actual people playing themselves.Obviously a different catagory in that regard from what is going on here, but both films draw much of their power from explicitly sexual scenes without compromising the integrity of the story being told. This is a film experience that should not be missed.
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on April 19, 2004
Many of you looking at this particular item might be well aware of foreign cinema, in all of it's delightfully un-Hollywood sentimentality. If you've seen the movie - which I'll assume some of you have - you might have already formed a very specific opinion about it. Perhaps the reason why is because the subject matter is very extreme, and it'd be more than a little difficult to walk away and not feel something. Initially, I was disgusted. I changed my mind, and I thought I'd share my reasoning here.
First of all, let's say for the sake of argument that the world has various standards when it comes to morality in any film dealing with adult issues. Some of you may have seen Lars Von Trier's "Dogville" and thought to yourself: "That's one skewed paradigm." Be that as it may, it's no less plausible than the cinematic - or philosophic - paradigm of Steven Spielberg. My point here is that we all look at and engage realities in a different way - and Japanese cinema is no different. In his revelatory book "Eros in Hell," Jack Hunter explores Japanese "pink cinema." This film is among hundreds produced in an odd era of Japanese filmmaking. Comparable with American "blue movies," pinku eiga moved to explore the boundaries of s*x as art, but also the psychological implications between the graphic evidence.
It'd be easy to refer to this genre of filmmaking as horror/pornography; the more difficult path is examining it in the same light you might examine a film by Adriane Lyne or David Cronenberg. Their general aesthetic is curiously akin to Japanese pink films. So here's the breakdown: this film is, in my opinion, an exploration of s*x as statement which is then turned on it's head to direct it's audience in considering the right questions.

Jack Hunter's book will point out that this film in particular is an exception - in that while it shared a genre and a content with it's contemporaries, the bigger picture might actually have been a statement about pink cinema all together. Consider, as you watch, that the s*x is almost cartoonish in it's frequency, that the humor is dry and nonchalant, and that the ending lends itself to a whole different mindset. Without giving too much away, the end is similar to "The Night Porter," or "Dead Ringers."
These comparisons are primarily in reference to the climactic scenes in each - where our hero and heroine (in spite the difficulty with which they hold the title) pull out of the outside world completely into some kind of isolated space. Up to this point we've seen our protagonists weather scrutiny and obstacles to be fulfilled. In fact we - the audience - have done most of the scrutinizing and castigating. I know I wasn't rooting for these people for the better part of their respective stories, but I felt as if I were driving them away into reclusiveness by lacking compassion for them.
Only when each set of characters are alone do we start to feel less accusatory and unforgiving. We realize - or so the hope might be - that their's is a deep spiritual bond. One you might expect to see between to loveable Hollywood starlets in a romantic comedy. But that isn't exactly the way things are. Though this example is relatively melodramatic, you can understand why they have arrived at such an intimacy.
They've reached that place with each other because we, the audience, didn't believe they could. We passed them off as s*x-crazed sociopaths. And honestly, they were. But I think a real interesting point the film made to me was how deeply they were connected in spite of the superficial s*xuality. This is a hard-learned lesson, and one you'll have to dig deep for. But consider for a moment that America doesn't own the patent on love stories, and that additionally love stories aren't always cute or clean or pure. Perhaps from the filmmaker's perspective love was an ugly, dirty thing - until it existed in a place where it was solemnly understood.
And without the world coming down on the protagonists - from without the constraints of society or the status quo - their particular kind of love was much easier to understand. I'm not saying that you'll instantly say to yourself: "Hey, wait a second... that was just love, not graphic s*x." I just took it with a grain of salt and thought of it as a near-parody. The fact of the matter is that you can point out blatant exaggerations in a great deal of Japanese contemporary media, and this film is no exception.
This obviously does not solve the problem of "just too much graphic s*x for my liking."
"The Night Porter," directed by Liliana Cavani, is somewhat less intense. That isn't to say it's devoid of intensity, or that you'll have a nice dinner-date movie on hand. It is to say that the s*xual content is far less prominent - and miraculously it gets the same point across in it's decidedly more watered-down, Western way. And as far as I'm concerned, that message is "intimacy can't be readily depicted in cinema without alienating the audience, because ideally - intimacy is a very exclusive thing."
It takes a patient person to watch "In The Realm of the Senses." It takes a lot of courage to appreciate it. However, save for the actors (or in the case of "In the Realm..." the real-life people it was inspired by) - don't expect anyone to completely understand the intimacy. This film will haunt some of you with that prospect.
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on May 27, 2003
By now everyone knows this film is about a sexually-obsessed woman who strangles and then cuts off her lover's willie (the extent to which her lover shared in the extremety of her obsession is somewhat debatable...). That notwithstanding, the film is well-acted, visually stylish, and manages to convey a genuine feeling for the passion which drove the characters. It's also succinct (at 96 minutes) and has some fabulous sex scenes.
The real-life case of 'Abe Sada' (Abe is the family name) was very well known in Japan, occurring almost 40 years before Oshima made this film. There are at least two other cinematic versions of the events. If anything, reality was even a bit stranger than fiction: in the real-life case Abe was arrested whilst carrying around the severed member in her kimono sash. I saw a photograph of her once, taken just after her arrest: you have never seen a more haunted-looking woman.
The original Japanese title of the film is 'Ai no Corrida,' 'Ai' means 'love', but, interestingly, 'Corrida' is not a Japanese word at all: it's a Spanish word meaning 'dash' 'sprint' or 'spurt', and is most often used in the expression 'Corrida de Toros' -- i.e. bullfight -- strongly alluding to the brutal (and inevitable) death of the bull at the end. This puts quite a different complexion on the theme of the film than does the Western distributor's title of 'In the Realm of the Senses' which seems to imply sensual pleasure which has perhaps unintentionally got out of hand.
Oshima's stock-in-trade has always been the 'shocking' film, usually made with the aim of confronting 'bourgeous' sensibilities or an accepted view of society or history. In the 1960's they were more of the socio-political variety (e.g. 'The Sun's Burial,' 'Cruel Story of Youth'); but the success of this film firmly added the sexual element to his repertoire; you can see this continues even up to the recent film 'Gohatto.' In my mind, however, 'Ai no Corrida' is the only one of his films that really works.
A quibble with the DVD version (I don't have the American Fox-Lorber one that so many have bitterly complained about, but the European one by Nouveau Entertainment) is that it appears to be a transfer from VHS: the English subtitles are part of the film image and not selectable (i.e. you can't turn them off). That is frankly very poor in a DVD.
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on October 21, 2002
This is an amazing film to watch. Not only is it beautifully filmed but the atmosphere is quite vivid in its' depiction of a Japanese servant girl who becomes mistress of the master of the house and sexually obsessed with their relationship. She leads him deeper into the sexual realm until it becomes the focus of both their lives. Their relationship becomes so intense that it can only lead to destruction. Film is extremely sexually graphic and to be honest, I wasn't even aware that I was watching "pornography" because the acting and story were so mesmerizing. By then, I didn't care because it wasn't offensive---just honest. The two leads are wonderful actors and they made me forget I was watching a supposedly one-time controversial film. The film is supposedly based on a true incident. The ending is shocking and depressing but that's allegedly what happened. I consider this film a classic and a must see for foreign film buffs. It's one of the most beautiful erotic love stories ever made and one of the most disturbing.
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on August 12, 2002
To be honest, I didn't know this film contained scenes of explicit sex before I bought it (didn't read reviews first -- bad on me!). Not that that would've necessarily kept me from watching it, but I think it let me have an initial viewing free of preconceived notions and pre-judgment.
The story is based on true events in pre-war Japan; a less explicit remake, but containing more pre-tryst character development, is the later film "A Woman Called Sada Abe." I don't know if it's fair to compare the two, because they want to accomplish very different things. "Woman" gives more background on Sada, giving the viewer a more compassionate feeling toward the woman and her ultimate sexual psychopathy. "Realm" lacks the background, but I think it presents a much more powerful and dark look into the mind of Sada, as well as the period that helped make her what she was.
One thing that surprised me is that the explicit sexuality, while surprising (I was going to write "shocking," but I don't mean it in a judgmental way), really didn't overpower the story. After the surprise wore off, it was, for me, simply the vehicle for demonstrating the downward spiral Sada (and Kichizo) found herself in -- sex was no longer about love, or even physical pleasure, but about possession and control over herself, in a society where she otherwise had very little control. The scenes are erotic, but not stimulating (it's hard to express in writing what that means, but suffice it to say this is not simply a "porno eye-candy" delivery).
As for the quality of the DVD, the transfer is OK, but why, oh why, do we *still* have to suffer the insult of pan-and-scan? Directors and cinematographers compose scenes carefully, but this is lost when 20% of the frame simply isn't there anymore. Please, Fox Lorber (and others), stop ruining films this way! We are sophisticated enough to disregard the black bars in order to enjoy the film the way it was meant to be viewed. The soundtrack is adeqate, though the music becomes rather repetitive after a while. The English subtitles often fail to match the dialogue, with one character's subtitle displaying as the other character is already responding.
I don't believe, as some others claim, that this is "pornography." Clearly, the director uses explicit sexuality to create a specific atmosphere, and give the viewer character insights that would be less powerful without it. But, it's probably not for everyone. [And I'll never eat another hard-boiled egg without thinking of one particular scene...]
I recommend this film, but those who know they would be offended by explicit sexuality may find "A Woman Called Sada Abe" more tolerable.
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on July 29, 2001
This movie is probably the most erotic film that I've seen to date (pornos notwithstanding). It is a movie about obsession and what can happen when it gets out of control, something that this movie demonstrates well. However, I wished the movie had delved into the background of the characters, especially Sada's. If the audience watching this film knew about Sada's past, where she was raped and then outcaste by her wealthy family because of it, I think the audience would have a better understanding about the reason for Sada's behavior. Still, despite that and an undeveloped plot, the movie is still entertaining. However, if you want to see a more sanitized version of this story, which is based on an actual event that took place in Tokyo in 1936, then get "A Woman Called Sada Abe", which is available on both VHS and DVD. From what I've heard, it doesn't have nearly as much sex and nudity as "In the Realm of the Senses", which is a good thing for people who are easily offended by it. Personally, I liked the sex scenes, which I felt were tasteful and elegant, unlike what would normally be found in a pornographic movie. There was a lot of emotion displayed in those scenes, and that gave it a certain romantic, authentic dimension to it. For that reason alone, I will watch it again and again.
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on August 24, 2000
Sometimes you can simply ignore the words of the film critics. I really can't understand in what way this film is 'pretentious' as Leonard Martin comments. This film expresses 'nothingness' and desire for ownership in the most original form!
Nagisa Oshima bases this film on a real incident, the shocking Abe Sada Incident in 1936, in which the girl was arrested when found holding a male sex organ in her hand. The tragedy was due to the pathetic phenomenon at the time - plenty of Japanese made use of pornography and even perversity to run away from the reality. In a way this film can be considered political, and this is also the reason why Oshima choose to reflect this phenomenon in a naked way, focusing on the relationship between Sada and Kichi (the owner of the sex organ). Their obsession and desire for owning one another soon turn into a search for self-identification in a dangerous and perversive way, and they find tremendrous enjoyment in S/M behaviour, which finally has taken Kichi's life accidentally. To possess her lover forever, Sada... you know what she has done.
Oshima has certainly chosen an extremely bold and erotic theme. Perhaps there is really too much sex in the film which may be sickening, but the effect is as strong as Ernest Hemingway's novels in expressing sense of alienation and 'nothingness'. 'Pretentious'? No. If I had to comment a film similar in theme and style by this word, I would choose the talky LAST TANGO IN PARIS.
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on August 16, 2000
This is a boring movie. This is a very boring movie. This is why art movies are usually condemned to three showings at a film festival and then straight to the (usually hard-to-find) videostore.
The main character is a geisha who's having sex with her employer. About a half hour into the movie you realize that yes, she really is having sex with him, but there's a real pretention to artistic integrity in this thing, so the couple has to talk just as much as they are having sex. They talk, they have sex, they talk some more and then they have sex while they are talking, but since all they are talking about is sex and since the erotic element has vanished long before the "egg scene", you have to struggle with listening to these guys bore you to death.
This would be a sick twisted little thrill if it didn't take itself so seriously, but since it does take itself seriously, you sit through it waiting for it to get better knowing that it will just plod along until that strangulation/castration scene at the end (and no, I don't care that it is a spoiler since how much of a spoiler can it really be when both characters TALK about strangulation and castration for the half the movie) in which the narrator tells you that it is a true story. I don't know why it should matter by the end that it is a true story. I guess the director is trying to say that it's not his fault that it's so dull or twisted because it happpened in REAL LIFE! Or something like that.
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on May 24, 2000
While the movie itself is great, very intense and highly recommendable for an outstanding experience, this VHS version, although published on April 25th, 2000 by Fox Lorber, still features the widely-known and annoying, shortened and blackened 94 minute long (or rather: 'short') cut. The box however states 104 minutes, which is of course not correct and beware of the 1.66:1 full screen format! You will miss all the important scenes that make this movie the special one that it is and you will definitely agree once you have seen it uncut - should you ever get hold of one of those infamous uncensored Hong Kong laserdisc editions or be lucky enough to have it screened in a cinema near you. Down with black dots, omitted scenes and intentionally fuzzied images! Among the missing scenes are the one with Sada and the small boy at the end of the movie, the fainting Sada at the beginning, blackened are all of Sada's intense involvements with her Master and fuzzied as well as shortened are the scenes at the marriage with the wooden bird and the servant girl in the middle of the film (this is also shortened considerably) and Sada's engagement while her master takes a smoke at the beginning of the story. Some scenes are zoomed in so that nothing offensive could be seen and others are panned to the right or left for the same effect. Chopped off limbs are nice in an Italian antique statue but absolutely out of place (pun courtesy of the English language) in this movie. The list could go on for awhile but you get the drift. Oddly enough, the scene with the egg (you know which one I mean) is not censored! Strange, huh?
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on March 8, 2000
My instinct to revisit this cinematographic experience was prompted by its near-controversial debate in a recent film festival back in Singapore... ... of how a motion picture produced more than twenty years ago continues to shock with its 'sexually explicit' content, and an almost hopeless proposition for the local censorship board to re-evaluate its opinion regarding the film's public release; submitted by 'crusaders for the arts' from a Singaporean film society.
Those in favour of the said release demanded for both government and people (in general) to promote a culture whereby art, in all its various forms and representations, could be embraced with a 'cosmopolitanly matured' attitude. The opposition on the other hand, implied the film to be sheer pornography, a 'meaningless' picture with zero cultural or moral substance.
While I do personally feel sceptical about the feasibility of its public release, I also do frown upon the latter opinions. This film should, and could be publicly released to any population, subject to its cultural susceptibility to artistic induction...whereby the majority can interpret the arts and differing culture, perspectorial realms and backgrounds...for this film, in short; a people that can siphon the sex from the subliminally realistic and disturbing body...which is both dark and true to the core... something that most minds living under seemingly autocratically dictatorial affiliating bodies (i.e. a stern cultural censor) will fail to grasp.
This film provokes both intense and passionate emotions, which amidst the implied sexual propagation, highlights a humane agenda of varying extremes. Its subtle message can only be decoded by a culturally adept and mature audience. It describes unpretentiously, the nether regions of the human mind and the expressive fantasies that are within its dark fathoms.
For those who (honestly) view this film as nothing but a pornographic title, they have all missed the bottomline and the whole story altogether.
Director Oshima has successfully created a film which demonstrates human emotions at levels that are deemed socially incorrect to many and incomprehensible by most. One can empathise also with those who refuse to accept the actual message out of both shame and disgust, a piety induced by many cultures.
I salute the country's effort in sustaining her nation's moral integrity. Alas, the opposite can only be said about the statutory body/ies that continually preaches its efforts in promoting international culture so as to realise and enhance a 'cosmopolitanly adept' nation; while being extremely conservative in its seemingly holier-than-thou judgements over the past years.
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