[originally published in a slightly different form in the Oregon Daily Emerald in 1977]
Nagisha Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1977) was a cause célèbre even before it officially opened in the United States, thanks to a bizarre Customs Office decision to confiscate a print rather than allow the film to be screened at the New York Film Festival. This censorship was particularly conspicuous directed, as it was, against the first film with hardcore sequences by a certifiably “serious” director; by 1977 Oshima was well-regarded, if not widely-known, for creative, pathmarking films like Boy, (1969)Death by Hanging, (1968) and his best film, The Ceremony (1971). Oshima’s projects had blended the roles of fearless provocateur and serious artist, most successfully in The Ceremony; in Senses, as in his earlier Night and Fog in Japan, the provocateur took center stage, with unhappy aesthetic results.
Commercially, though, the publicity could hardly have been more favorable: an award-winning director and subtitles to bring out the art film crowd, and censorship for the First Amendment crowd, with maybe also a genteel slice of the overcoat crowd (knowing it was the “real thing”). In combination with the acclaim the film garnered, it created what passes in the marginal realm of the art film an international sensation, becoming the first widely-distributed Oshima film; from there his career inflated with bigger budgets (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), with David Bowie, no less)and more provocative themes (Max, Mon Amour, (1987) reportedly a tale of romantic attraction between a character played by Charlotte Rampling, and an ape named Max); after further work was interrupted by serious health problems he ended his career with one of his most compelling and effective films, Gohatto (Taboo) (1999), about gay sex in the military.
By the standards of domestic porn, even in its time, Senses was fairly tame stuff, with hardcore sequences too brief and intermittent for serious overcoaters, but it does include, by my unofficial count, along with heterosexual couplings: masturbation, gay sex, voyeurism, sado-masochism, bondage, rape, intergenerational sex, hints of sex play with a child, symbolic bestiality, dismemberment, castration, a sexual act of murder, and necrophilia. In addition, the soundtrack contains enough groaning, moaning, sighing, panting, grunting, and heavy breathing for a wrestling tournament.
But if the film is full of sex, there is almost no eroticism or sensuality and the sex is almost invariably joyless. At one point, the woman of the amorous pair, moaning in her usual manner, tells an onlooker, “I’m not coming, I’m in pain.” So it might be with all the sexual gymnastics: the film’s heavy-handed – er – climax, where the sex becomes, literally, murderous, seems almost redundant.
Perhaps the reason it doesn’t work artistically is that pornography is not all that congenial to art. But that seems too facile to be more than a partial explanation, and Senses‘ most serious problem is that it depicts not two people, but a pair of sexual gymnasts. Its real focus (despite the abundance of extreme close-ups) is consistently detached and external; the characters go through their sexual paces and speak their dialogue, but we seldom get a sense of their inner lives, the forces that animate them. The joylessness of the couplings makes the characters’ growing obsession with sexuality itself—for all we see in the film—inexplicable. Pornography lends itself to such literalness: clinically illuminating anatomical details makes it hard to find, much less probe, characters’ inner lives. But the only aesthetic reason for a serious director to work in the genre at all would seem to be to try to transcend this limitation, to capture the feelings, as well as the physical contortions, of sexuality. And the film’s attempts at social consciousness don’t really work.
Senses seems defined by its ambivalence—which finally becomes open terror—toward female sexuality. Early in the film, the woman becomes the sexual aggressor, pursuing her own fulfillment while the man passively acquiesces to her every whim. Indeed, at times it is hard to tell what, besides exhaustion, the man is getting from their union. The film’s ending brings this theme, with apologies to Dr. Freud, into perfect focus: the only thing that can really satisfy a woman, Oshima seems to suggest, is—yes—to cut off the male organ and take it for herself. That makes Senses a film less about eroticism than male fears of being overwhelmed and consumed—and then killed and castrated—by the demands of female sexuality. This may make Senses provocative or just pretentious, but the whole package doesn’t cohere into anything satisfying, or help much in answering the question whether hardcore pornography can be crafted into film art.
Criterion releases In the Realm of the Senses on DVD and Blu-ray special editions on Tuesday, April 28
1977/2009 David Coursen