Published January 1, 1997
In the Realm of the Senses is a Japanese film made twenty years ago by Nagisa Oshima. At the time it was considered shocking even by the relaxed standards of the day and it was seized by U.S. Customs Agents. What innocent times they seem! Nowadays we aren’t so much more depraved than people were 20 years ago, we are just more blasé. No one cares enough about anything he sees in the movies to be shocked by it. A steady diet of fantasy and postmodern irony has so far detached the cinema, or our expectations of it, from reality that even a film like this hardly seems worth getting upset about.
The reason for its seeming so shocking twenty years ago has to do with its unusual plot, which is supposedly based on a true story from Japan of 1936. A middle-class married man called Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), who has the relaxed attitude towards sex of his sex and time, takes a shine to a servant girl called Sada (Eiko Matsuda). Quickly, however, this affair goes way beyond a sexual adventure. The two become totally obsessed with each other. Kichizo moves out of his home, and he and Sada undertake a mock “marriage” ceremony. They take up residence in a room and neglect everything else to the exclusion of each other. They both are always ready for sex, it seems, though she more than he. She doesn’t even sleep, but stays awake all night holding and sucking on his penis. Even when they go out she keeps hold of it. At one point he complains that it is only when he goes to have a pee that his penis gets a rest. But he doesn’t really mind much. And once Sada is so reluctant to see him go pee that she asks him to pee in her. “Can’t you wait?” he asks.
“That’s all I do,” she answers.
They make love in public places and frighten the servants, who complain that their room is filthy (they never leave so it is never cleaned) and that they are “perverts” because she can’t stop sucking him. “Isn’t it normal?” she asks innocently. “Isn’t it natural for a woman to love the soex of the man she loves.” She goes to the doctor, who tells her that she is not sick, just hypersensitive, sexually. And indeed, the best thing about the movie, is the shot of her enjoyment of everything he does to her.
She has to go make some money to support them by returning to her job as a prostitute. She sleeps with a school principal, but insists that he slap and pinch her. Later, she tries slapping Kichizo. She speaks of his penis as if it were her own and threatens to cut it off if he ever again sleeps with his wife. Yet when a 68 year old geisha comes to play for them while they make love, Sada suggests that Kichizo screw the geisha while she watches. The poor geisha passes out from the intensity of the experience. When Sada is out with the principal, the maid tells Kichizo that Sada “will end up killing you.” He then screws the maid. This kind of sex seems no big deal to either of them.
In the end, he and Sada experiment with partial asphyxiation as an aid to sexual excitement. At first he tries choking her, but he hasn’t the heart for it. “I can’t go on,” he says, “I can’t see you suffer.” So she pulls a silken cord around his neck and finds that it gives them both extra pleasure. Finally Kichizo agrees that Sada will finish the job and kill him. This she does and then, having frequently made references before to her proprietary feelings about his member, cuts it off so as to keep it always with her. Found wandering around Tokyo in a daze of sexual ecstasy, she became for a time something of a national heroine, though the film ends with her curled up naked next to the corpse of Kichizo, his bloody parts and where they were cut from fully displayed. Strange people, those Japanese.