Blu-ray Review: In the Realm of the Senses (Criterion Collection)

Anyone that highly recommends you buy Criterion’s In the Realm of Senses does not have your best interest in mind and should be instantly considered a suspect reviewer. This is, by absolutely no means, a film for everyone and even when you think you have the audience pegged you run into additional factors that will cause raised eyebrows. I don’t say any of this in an effort to tell you not to see the film, but I do think the motivations of this film can be just as easily discussed without ever seeing it, which is evidenced by the 30-minute conversation I had earlier tonight, which was only cut-off due to the movie that was about to start.

The description on the back of this Blu-ray edition describes this 1976 film from Japanese director Nagisa Oshima as “just as political as it is pornographic.” The film is based on a true story in which Sada Abe, a former prostitute working as a maid, falls in love with her married employer. The two become lovers and escape to a nearby geisha house where they give in to passion whenever the mood strikes them, primarily guided by Sada whose sexual appetite is so insatiable nothing will stand in the way of her desire.

There is a rather shocking end to the story most reviewers I have read give away within the first two paragraphs, for what reason I do not know. Just because something isn’t necessarily a surprise doesn’t mean it should be ruined even if it is the viewing experience of only one person you are saving.

In the Realm of Senses has primarily gained attention for its sexually explicit nature and rightfully so as it leads to plenty of conversation, and as I said earlier, all without the need to actually see the film. The film includes a wide variety of sexual acts, occasionally explicit and occasionally unique in the sense I haven’t even considered ever doing that with a hard-boiled egg. The question now becomes, is this pornographic?

The quote I gave from the box art says the film is “just as political as it is pornographic,” but I think that is a bit misleading since the film is political because it is pornographic, but not in the sense you will see young men lining up for their turn with a copy of the DVD. My knowledge of post-war Japan is zero, but in reading the included essay by Donald Richie a few additional details are pointed out other than Oshima’s attempt to eradicate the concept of “obscenity” with his explicit images. The only way to really get to the heart of this is to give you a quote from Oshima himself discussing “obscenity” and the role his film took in tackling the issue:

The concept of ‘obscenity’ is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, ‘obscenity’ disappears and there is a certain liberation. When that which one had wanted to see isn’t sufficiently revealed, however the taboo remains, the feeling of ‘obscenity’ stays, and an even greater ‘obscenity’ comes into being. Pornographic films are thus a testing ground for ‘obscenity’,’ and the benefits of pornography are clear. Pornographic cinema should be authorized, immediately and completely. Only thus can ‘obscenity’ be rendered essentially meaningless.

I understand Oshima’s thinking here, but I think it is an oversimplified look at the matter. I also think it renders a lot of the argument Richie makes in his included essay useless considering one specific line where he says, “In the Realm of Senses uncut is not in any sense pornographic.” Isn’t such a statement in direct conflict with Oshima’s ideas on the subject? However, he too has a point that broadens the discussion and his essay is well worth the read.

One argument Oshima had against the censoring of his film — which has still never been shown uncut or uncensored in Japan — is that by blurring out the genitals or cutting out scenes entirely the censors are in fact making it into a dirty film. This is where Oshima’s argument against calling the film obscene when he was brought up on charges in Japan is entirely valid, “Nothing that is expressed is obscene; what is obscene is what is hidden.” How true.

In no way is Oshima’s film obscene in my opinion, but I do believe it is pornographic. I guess this raises another question, can a film contain moments of pornography without being outright labeled as such? I think it can be and after my conversation tonight I urge you to strike up the same discussion with others and see where it takes you.

As for Criterion’s release of In the Realm of Senses I would point you to everything I have just written and if any of it interests you then by all means give this one a shot. If you are wondering if you should buy it, you can go in knowing the audio, video and all the supplements are top notch. The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and includes a Japanese uncompressed monaural track with English subs, but to continue your journey the supplements add a lot to the package.

Not all Criterion releases come with audio commentaries, but you can typically pick out those that have affected the landscape of film based on whether or not they come with one. Realm of Senses comes with an excellent commentary track by film critic Tony Rayns. Rayns’ commentary is laced with endless details on the film and its director. Next is a pair of interview sessions followed by just over six minutes of deleted scenes and finally the U.S. trailer.

I already referenced Richie’s essay, which comes as part of an impressive 38-page booklet, something that exhibits why Criterion is the leader when it comes to quality home entertainment releases. While Richie’s views on the film frustrated me a bit considering his use of absolutes it is a tremendous dissection of the film and its controversies. Following Richie’s write-up is an interview with Oshima broken up into four chapters talking about how the film came to be. Everything supplied by this release stimulates conversation, which doesn’t necessarily mean the film itself is necessarily a masterpiece, but it certainly does its job and does it well.

With all of this said, I still wouldn’t recommend this film as a blind buy. This is a film for cinephiles and had I not been reviewing it I most likely wouldn’t have watched it myself, at least not right away. However, my occupation afforded me the opportunity to see a film that will never go away, at least not until we are watching pornography on network television. And who knows, judging by where TV is now compared to where it was in 1976 when In the Realm of Senses was released we may not be too far off.

Perhaps the best way to describe this film is to say now that I have seen it I will likely never watch it again, but at the same time I will never forget it.

SIDE NOTE: If you would like to read a review of this release from someone more accomplished in film history than myself I would recommend Dave Kehr’s review at The New York Times. If you want to avoid the end of the film spoiler just skip the third paragraph, but other than that, it will give you an opinion from a guy obviously more versed in the history of cinema than myself.

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