Sunday, June 6, 2010

This is Japan Calling: In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

If for nothing else, Nagisa Oshima's shocker proves one thing: there is a very fine line between porn and non-porn. And don't ask me what that fine line represents or how In the Realm of the Senses belongs to the latter category. It just does. Deal with it.

The film, whose based on a true story credentials are revealed by a redundant final voice-over, doesn't have a plot per se. It can be described as thus: a servant girl (formerly a "whore") falls for her virile master. They hook up. Again, and again ... and seek new realms of senses, if you please. However, while seeking for a heightened sexual ecstasy, things get a little out of control and blood begins to flow.

Upon its release, it was banned in numerous countries and apparently Nagisa Oshima was involved in a trial case that lasted for 4 years in his native Japan for breaking the obscenity laws. In the UK, its release was delayed for nearly 15 years - even then, some scenes had to be optically manipulated. In the version that I have, there is only one tampering that involved two naked children.

But, going back to my original point: what makes In the Realm of the Senses an 'proper' film and not an out and out porn? Well, on the surface the film features as much sex as your run-of-the-mill porn movie of the era. And the sex is not simulated or shot from weird angles so that we don't see the naughty bits: there are enough erections, penetrations, and ejaculations that will satisfy (ahem) any porn customer. The two characters are seldom seen dressed and the sex scenes really do drag on - just like in a porn.

The difference though, is that despite some early misconceptions, these scenes do not really 'elicit' any fun. And I'm not dissing the performance or the physical appearance of the actors. What we see is pretty natural (nothing seems to have been altered on an operating table), but there is also a naturalness to their acting. It feels quite uncomfortable after a while (and not because of seeing too much exposed genitalia), but because of its intimacy. We are truly voyeurs of an intimate love afffair and we know everything they do. In fact, nothing else ever happens in the film, but sex.

A few other details make In the Realm of the Senses really special. I don't think I am the only person who thinks the girl's name being Sada as hilarity of the highest order - this truly unsubtle reference to her character, somehow pays off as its ridiculousness is replaced by sheer terror toward the end. Also, Oshima manages to add little bits of surreal imagery that make viewers even more uncomfortable: we are not only witnessing what they are doing, we are witnessing what goes on in their minds as they are doing it. My favourite was a scene where a group of geishas deflower one of their colleagues while the couple are going at it. They use what I assume to be a porcelain dildo with a handle shaped as a bird. It then cuts to an old man 'dancing' like a bird while a Caligula-like orgy is taking place. We don't know which body belongs to Sada, and who does what to whom. Only Kichi's (the man) head can be seen.

This is not a film that would sit well with many people. It can easily be mistaken for a porn - there is real sex and real blood (those of who are familiar with Francois Ozon's early shorts about menstruation will have a field day during a scene on a rickshaw). And it ends with a climax that is disturbing, bloody, and quite shocking. But, it all feels very natural somehow. And that's why In the Realm of the Senses is a classic and not a cheap porno.

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