The Criterion Collection version of Nagisa Oshima’s controversial “In the Realm of the Senses” that came to DVD and Blu-ray this week is listed on Criterion’s web site as running 108 minutes long. That number corresponds with the length of the film’s “original version” given by IMDb, though the site also lists a 109-minute version from the U.K., a 107-minute version from Australia, and a 98-minute version from Argentina. There seems to be a different cut for every country that’s willing to show the film (unlike its native Japan, where it remains banned). The movie is almost an indecency Rorschach test — it’d be fascinating, if a little horrifying, to compare all the different cuts side-by-side, to see what each culture found unacceptable by its moral standards. (By the way, IMDb does not mention a 95-minute cut, which is the length of the film on the previous DVD edition from Fox Lorber that’s currently available from Netflix).
So what’s the big deal? Oshima’s film was made in 1976, relatively late in the decade’s wave of art films that dared to explore sexuality seriously — “Last Tango in Paris” and its notorious butter scene, for instance, came out four years earlier. One key difference, though, between “Senses” and most of its predecessors, was its degree of explicitness. Some of the sexual acts between stars Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji were simulated, but some were not. Nowadays, unsimulated sexual activity between actors in a non-pornographic movie isn’t all that uncommon; in just the last few years, the technique’s been employed in films like “The Brown Bunny,” “9 Songs,” “Shortbus,” “Ken Park” and “Anatomy of Hell.” But back in 1976, the line between pornography and art films with real sex was a bit fuzzier; or at the very least, the fact that there could be a distinction between pornography and an art film with real sex was a serious discussion.
The inexorable march of time and the accumulated effect of several decades’ worth of subsequent envelope-pushing cinema has neutered the impact of “Senses,” at least on a graphic level. Some of it remains skeezy — personally speaking, I do not need to see a woman stick an egg in her vagina, but maybe that’s just me — yet little of it remains offensive. What ability the film has today to shock audiences has as much to do with the emotional implications of the story as its more detailed imagery.
Matsuda plays Sada Abe, a former prostitute who’s become a servant to a hotel owner named Kichizo Ishida, played by Fuji. The two begin sneaking around behind Ishida’s wife’s back, and their affair quickly escalates in intensity. Their passion moves swiftly from all-consuming to self-destructive: hitting each other during sex leads to erotic asphyxiation, which leads to the film’s infamous finale, where Abe, after choking Ishida to death, severs his penis and writes “Sada & Kichi The Two Of Us Forever” on his lifeless chest in his own blood.
The story only becomes more unsettling when you discover it’s based on a true-life case that took places in Japan decades before Lorena Bobbitt’s name became a setup and punchline unto itself. The very last line of narration from “In the Realm of the Senses” tells us Abe’s final fate and informs the audience that “it happened in 1936.” And indeed it did — as in the film, the real-life Abe and Ishida embarked on a sexually adventurous affair that concluded with Ishida’s mid-coitus murder and castration.