In the Realm of the Senses (Ai No Corrida)
Dir: Nagisa Oshima
When Oshima faced an obscenity trial in Japan, it was not for the film 'Ai No Corrida', successfully banned, it was for the script and selected stills which had been published. Oshima used the trial to vigorously and eloquently question both censorship and obscenity, and was acquitted.
He had challenged audiences from the start of his career, banning the color green in his films because he felt it was an overused, over-traditional colour symbolic of gardens and nature. He banned scenes involving actors sitting on tatami mats. He despised the masters of Japanese cinema like Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Naruse,
He admired the cinema of Eastern Europe, and early films were dangerously political, covering taboo subjects like Korean-Japanese relations.
It would be wrong to say that he was a left-wing filmmaker. He supported the left no more than the right. What he objected to was a dominant political system that controlled individual freedoms, needs and thoughts.
'In the Realm of the Senses' is probably Oshima's best-known work, mainly for the controversy surrounding it. It was produced and financed by French producer Anatole Dauman who had previously produced films by Walerian Borowczyk, and saw that in the seventies testing boundaries of censorship was generally good for box office.
The film could not be processed in Japan, and had to be sent back to France.
It tells the true story of Abe Sada, a Japanese woman who erotically asphyxiated her lover in 1936, and was caught by police with his genitals in her handbag.
Much of the film concentrates on the increasing intensity and sado-masochistic games in their relationship, and features some of the most explicit scenes put on a mainstream film even up until today.
When society told Oshima that something could not be done, he wanted to do it. The eroticism in 'In the Realm of the Senses' was part of his politicized opposition to a controlling government system.
Again, one is reminded that in the 70s, filmmakers in many countries were making sexually charged films as a means of exposing and attacking repressive governments. They saw sexual censorship as a symptom of governments overstepping their bounds.
The film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and won awards from Chicago and the British Film Institute.
To this day, the film has never been shown uncensored in Japan. It caused trials and bans in many countries across the world.
When I first saw 'In the Realm of the Senses', it was in the Scala cinema in London on a seriously scratched 16mm print. It was banned in regular cinemas, but since the Scala cinema was a member's club, they could screen it. Now the film is available on Blu-Ray thanks to the Criterion Collection.
The 2000 DVD released featured on its cover a quote by Madonna, saying something stupid like 'I love it because it's real'. I can't even be bothered to look up the actual quote. One realizes that when Oshima and his generation made films which they knew that society would find shocking, firstly they put themselves at real risk of punishment and even jail. Secondly, they were doing so because of a sincere desire to change society for the better. How far society has changed when Madonna uses the same tactics purely to sell records. Paris Hilton has made an entire 'career' out of her sex tape.
When Kubrick made 'Eyes Wide Shut' in 1999, in a way he was attempting some of the same things as 'In the Realm of the Senses'; an intense, personal exploration of a relationship and its sexual dimension. And yet the world had moved on, and sadly viewers mainly greeted 'Eyes Wide Shut' with a large yawn.
Is 'In the Realm of the Senses' art, or is it just pornography? Even if it had a political context at the time of its production, does it have any value when removed from that time and context? Is it famous because it is one of Oshima's crowning works, or is it merely a minor work that has become famous for its controversy? Is it perhaps true that media, shock value, controversy and PR spin has in fact become the new politics?
I don't know. But I do think that we should be allowed to see it for ourselves, and find our own answers.