The first time you watch Ōshima Nagisa’s “In the Realm of the Senses,” it might seem like more of a horror movie than a love story. Even now, when American viewers coming to the film for the first time might be inclined to sympathize with a story about two people who self-quarantine to save themselves from their country’s suicidal ideology, it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees and mistake Ōshima’s transgressive 1976 masterpiece for something tawdry or even sinister.
This is, after all, a claustrophobic (and broadly true) saga of erotic obsession from the most hostile of Japanese auteurs; a mad and scandalous work of art that’s full of unsimulated sex, peppered with a massacre’s worth of little deaths, and topped off with a scene of genital amputation so unflinching that it feels like an answer to the eyeball cut in Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou.” Even if you’re willing to consider that Abe Sada chops off Ishida Kichizō’s penis as an act of love and mutual liberation, it still hurts to watch. No matter how you slice it, “In the Realm of the Senses” is perhaps the most pungent movie ever made.
While “In the Realm of the Senses” hasn’t aged a day since its riotous initial release almost 50 years ago, the most notorious and universal of Ōshima’s films hits that much harder at a time when staying inside has become a meaningful way of saving the United States from itself. It’s never been easier to appreciate Ōshima’s pity for these characters, or how their carnal revolt against the rising tide of militarism — no matter how revolting it gets — is able to convey the dangers of living in a country that’s ashamed of all the wrong things.
“Love of a country is a strange thing,” Ōshima once said. “Just puffing out your chest with national pride and telling people how wonderful your country is does not constitute love of country as I see it. You have to tell the truth about your country, whatever it is.” To that point, “In the Realm of the Senses” might be the most patriotic film the lifelong firebrand ever made. Ōshima saw “In the Realm of the Senses” as a chance to seduce people into looking at themselves. It would be erotic but not titillating, arousing but not exploitative. It would offset the mucus, viscera, and verisimilitude of hardcore porn with the matter-of-factness of a nature documentary. The film gradually becomes so cocooned inside its crust of dried sex that viewers start to get turned off just as they begin to realize there was nowhere else for them to go.
Somewhat obviously shot on a claustrophobic Kyoto soundstage, “In the Realm of the Senses” is striking for its initial lack of context. Viewers unfamiliar with the legend of Abe Sada might be able to infer that the movie is set sometime between World Wars, but Ōshima doesn’t specify when it takes place until the very last frame, when an unemotional narrator announces that we’ve been in 1936. It’s a year that’s especially significant in Japanese history because of a failed coup that strengthened the military’s stranglehold on political power and galvanized the country’s alliance with Germany — a coup that the characters in this movie don’t seem to know anything about.
So far as brothel owner Kichizō is concerned, the world doesn’t exist beyond the length of his dick. Played by the cat-like Fuji Tatsuya (who Ōshima cast for his utter lack of vanity, and uses it to deliver a remarkably naked and unafraid performance in a movie that doesn’t have any other kind), Kichizō has sex with his wife in full view of his various employees, and embodies the hedonistic lack of shame that comes with his line of work. Perhaps that’s why he’s so drawn to a new maid named Sada (the ravenous and trembling Matsuda Eiko), who takes pity on a homeless man when some local kids poke at his penis, and offers the vagrant a charitable handjob after he recognizes Sada from her days as a sex worker. Kichizō entreats Sada into a sexual relationship without asking for her consent or his wife’s permission, and the two begin screwing with the carefree abandon of a couple enjoying a picnic along the banks of the Kamo River (food regrettably becomes involved here, as well). It’s snowing outside, and they retreat into warmth.
Sada is what an American rom-com might refer to as “a clinger”: She ends her first night with Kichizō by kissing the head of his penis with the intensity of someone holding a John Cassavetes close-up, and tells Kichizō that she wants him inside of her at all times — she wants to erase the boundary between where he ends and she begins. The viscous bond they forge in isolation is powerful enough to collapse the various socioeconomic divides that would keep them apart in the outside world, class and money being the most pronounced among them; if Sada is initially vulnerable to Kichizō because of her husband’s debts, she finds rare ecstasy in not having to think about them at all.
The carnal purity of this dynamic only grows more apparent as Ōshima tests its resolve, with Sada and Kichizō’s all-consuming sex gradually escalating from tempting to kinky to dangerous while the rest of the country prepares for war. Every viewer hits their limit at a different point — the sequence where Sada births a hardboiled egg for Kichizō to snack on is probably a common line of demarcation between appetizing and not — but “In the Realm of the Senses” can’t help but turn up the dial in order to keep the outside world at bay. At first, maids and geisha are eager to serve the relentless lovers, as they’ve never seen two people exist with less shame; eventually Sada and Kichizō’s room becomes so permeated with the stink of old sex that some employees refuse to serve them.
The rare scenes in which the characters venture outside are all the more jarring because Ōshima begins to shoot them outside, as our full-time fornicators see if they can expand their compulsive little bubble without bursting it. Alas, their initial success at screwing in public and involving random strangers into their sex games abruptly sours with the film’s most indelible image: A depleted Kichizō stumbling back home while a regiment of soldiers march down the street in the opposite direction, a line of women waving Japanese flags as they pass. The sequence is a minute long at the most, and yet that’s all the time Ōshima needs to codify the dissonance between Kichizō and the rest of his countrymen — to establish that he exists apart from and in direct opposition to the feudal mentality of a nation that would rather march to towards death in perfect formation than risk the shame of breaking rank.
Sada and Kichizō refuse to participate in the suicidal pageantry of imperialism, even as it swells across Kyoto to the point where it becomes impossible to avoid. They bravely reject the feudalistic mentalities and divisions that brought Japan to the brink of another war, lean into the centrifugal force of a tryst that would horrify “decent” people, and embrace a kind of fulfillment that polite society will never allow them to keep. The self-destructive zeal stoked by the government eventually proves too suffocating to hide from, and Sada squeezes the life out of her partner before the brewing catastrophes of World War II can do it first; the purity of their connection is such that Kichizō’s severed penis allegedly stays erect inside of Sada for days after his death.
And so “In the Realm of the Senses” climaxes as a deadly serious parody of two people trying to maintain their humanity in the face of a government that’s lost its mind. Ōshima doesn’t offer “fucking each other to death” as a viable response to tyrannical nationalism, but he suggests that Sada and Kichizō have evinced such profound devotion to a society worth dying for that they were left with no choice but to live outside of the one they got.
Ōshima’s film reminds us that true patriotism often demands a refusal to participate in performative self-aggrandizement. Squinting to see it through a more topical lens, “In the Realm of the Senses” offers a ripe argument against whatever kind of exceptionalism might compel politicians to act like a pandemic doesn’t apply to their country. At a time when people across the United States are shut away in their homes in order to survive while their government plunges the nation deeper into a preventable disaster, Sada and Kichizō almost seem like role models. If “In the Realm of the Senses” is a horror movie, the horror is coming from outside the house.
“In the Realm of the Senses” is available to stream on the Criterion Channel.