Nagisa Oshima on In the Realm of the Senses: The Criterion Collection

In the Realm of the Senses – Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography: The Criterion Collection

In the Realm of the Senses

Nagisa Oshima, 1976

In Sprague’s list of his ten favourite films that he gives Marietta as she leaves him, In the Realm of the Senses  is number 4.

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Part Five Chapter 15

Ai no corrida: Shortly after the film’s release, shortly after your first night with Inès, you saw In the Realm of the Senses. It hit you hard. Walking at midnight in Saint-Germain, arm-in-arm under her umbrella, you paid no attention to the neon evanescent under your feet or the faces of the passers-by; no, all you could see as Inès led you to a bar were images of Eiko Matsuda making love to Tatsuya Fuji: Strumming the samisen as she sits astride him, she rocks him deeper into herself; with a languorous flutter of her eyes, she spills his sperm from her mouth; strangling him with the sash cord of her kimono, she sways as he twitches inside her. And the image of her, ecstatic upon her return to her dead lover, cutting off his cock with a butcher’s knife. And then the writing in blood on his body: ‘Sada, Kichi, the two of us together’.

Eiko Matsuda as Sada Abe, Tatsuya Fuji as Kichizō Ishida

In a bar on rue Mazarin you ordered a Fernet-Branca with Bourbon and Angostura bitters; Inès opted for a Lillet blanc with Cointreau. Though she had made love with men, she’d never known pleasures like those you’d experienced with Jürgen and Marco. She interpreted your post-film emotion as revulsion; little did she understand what was stirring you. But she did perceive your fascination, and so talked freely about the film. She’d lived in Tokyo for seven years, she’d read the notes from the police interrogation of Abe Sada (published as a book), so when she confirmed that every detail in the film is drawn directly from Sada’s testimony, your stunned fascination gave way to elation, a buzz at once disquieting and liberating. Needing a moment of silence, you angled your chair away from Inès and picked up your drink. As you savoured the subtleties of the bitters flavouring the Bourbon, you caught her reflection in a mirror: Tapering down around her face, her bob with its black sheen and purple glow framed her full lips and high cheekbones: You’d have kissed her then and there had not her cateye glasses kept her beauty from being overbearing. As you turned to face her she was a little confused, a lover not yet used to the intensity of your inner life. You asked her, as she sipped her Lillet, to tell you more about Abe Sada. ‘I want to know everything’, you said, ‘I love learning from you’.

It was with rapt attention, then, that you listened to the story of the woman who, thanks to the murder and mutilation she committed in her corrida of love, remains a compelling myth in Japan. What moved you most in her story was the way everything in her life—the years of prostitution, the gentleness with Professor Omiya, the intoxicating passion for Ishida Kichizo—seemed to derive from her parents’ failure to recognize her feelings when, at age fifteen, she was raped by an acquaintance. Indelibly branded as ‘damaged goods’, irrevocably unmarriageable, she sought, if not redress, at least recognition of what had happened: Her parents offered only indifference or calculating indulgence. In response, her anger became contempt; she decided to assume her fate and take her life in hand. Geisha, she couldn’t compete with the women who’d been training for that profession from childhood; whore, whether as licensed prostitute or freelance, she did fine; mistress, it all depended on the man. When she left the sex business she didn’t get farther than being a maid; her middle-class childhood was now the mark not of some paradise lost, but the demonstration that nobody was worthy of trust. Sex, whether in the business or out, had become her greatest pleasure; her desire knew no bounds. Was that a factor of biology, or a means to assert her freedom in the face of her destiny? Was it a facile rebellion against a society that had cast her out, or a search for the love and recognition she’d never had? That was the strand in her life that intrigued you, that and her overwhelming passion for Ishida Kichizo.

With him, not only was sex bliss, but love was strong and recognition absolute. But he was married, he had children, he had a business to run. When the days of uninterrupted sex in the teahouses could no longer be maintained, Sada was not prepared to be relegated from his be-all and end-all to his mistress: With his tacit consent she strangled him to death, and in a delirium of what she construed as love, cut off the organ that had given her so much pleasure. When she realized what she’d done, she decided to hang herself, but was arrested before she could carry out the act. It was not a double suicide that didn’t work out, it was one woman asserting her love over and against her lover and the world. Inès assured you that the transcripts show she was neither a deranged pervert nor insane, but had, in her own words, done ‘insane things’ in the name of love. Was it because you saw your experience of anorexia as similarly insane that you were sympathetic to Sada? Did your experience of maternal abandonment dispose you to understanding not only her anger, but also her inability to let go of the man who finally assuaged it? Or was it that her quest for recognition from her father was a quest whose frustration you also knew? As you finished your drinks, you decided that next weekend you’d go and see the film again: Its beauty, at once lush and austere, had moved you, but the mystery of love at its core had moved you even more: That is what you wanted to immerse yourself in.