Nagisa Oshima is one of Japan’s most interesting directors. He oeuvre is difficult to categorise neatly: covering an eclectic range of subjects, his films are sometimes controversial, sometimes confrontational but always captivating. He shunned traditional Japanese filmmaking, particularly the styles and themes of contemporary directors such as Kurosawa, Ozu and Naruse, preferring rebellious, provocative or political themes, and often focussing on characters marginalised by society. Three of his films are released on Blu-ray this week. Beware – some of the reviews contain spoilers.

In the Realm of the Senses (Ai No Korida [1976])

Ai No Korida is one of cinema’s most distinct, notable and controversial films. It has garnered both criticism and laudation since its inception nearly four decades ago. Does Nagisa Oshima’s most notorious film remain a dubious entry in film history or does it form an important part of cinematic heritage?

If there is a top ten list of difficult films to review then Ai No Korida lies near the top of the chart. But it is clear, thirty five years after its creation, that it is still significant and relevant; an indication of its power and importance, even as it challenges the fundamental views of the past and present.

Abe Sada (Eiko Matsuda) used to be a prostitute but now works as a maid in a local inn. She has a part time relationship with a teacher, on a paid basis, but finds that her emotional and sexual needs centre upon Kishizo (Tatsuya Fuji), the married owner of the hotel. She becomes infatuated by him and he, in turn, withdraws from his marriage and business life to become a partner to Sada, as they engage in passionate sexual encounters in a private hotels. But the obsessive nature of their relationship develops into the realms of the sado-masochistic with dangerous, even deadly, consequences.

Based on the true story of renowned murderer Abe Sada, Ai No Korida’s narrative is simplistic in execution: girl loves boy and that love becomes obsessive. The girl has a prostitution background, he has a wife and business concerns. Their love becomes sexually excessive and increasingly experimental. Their passion for each other is so extreme that they effectively abandon society and all its conventions to give in to their desires. She demands that he leave his wife and, even though she has to fulfil her obligations to a teacher in order to earn money, she will not allow him to lead any semblance of a normal life. The maid who brings them food and sake complains that their hotel room is disgusting and unhygienic. But they don’t care.

Ai No Korida is not a porn film, despite Oshima getting funding for it on the basis that he was to make a genre film and that he boldly chose the ‘porn’ genre. Yes, it contains explicit, obsessive sex for much of its running time and is unabashed in its portrayal of sexuality and unrelenting in its depiction of genitalia. But pornography requires elements of teasing or titillation throughout the running time and is designed to engage the viewer in a voyeuristic erotic experience. Rather, Ai No Korida is an art film, a fervent exploration of passion and obsession.

Released uncut for the first time, and looking gorgeous on Blu-ray, Ai No Korida is not for the faint-hearted or easily offended. It is a brilliant piece of filmmaking because it is so daring, so defiant. The extras include fascinating documentaries about the making of the film.

Empire of Passion (Ai no borei [1978])

Following in the footsteps of the notorious Ai no Korida was never going to be an easy task but Oshima’s Ai No Borei both manages to complement its brethren and also surprise with its own distinct style and story. There are many links to its forebear: the titles are similar (Ai no Borei, Empire of Passion – a title that accentuates the sexuality within the film), the film was produced by Anatole Dauman and financed from the same resources. Additional connections can be found in some of Ai no Borei’s sexual themes and lead star. But actually this is a very different piece of cinema.

Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji) is becoming passionately obsessed with his new lover Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and takes every opportunity to make love to her, regardless of the fact that she is significantly older (although you wouldn’t know it from her appearance and sexuality), has children and is married to rickshaw operator Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). Her husband is conveniently employed away from their village much of the time but that’s not enough for the amorous pair and they seek a definitive solution to their wanton need for romantic engagements. To this end they murder Gisaburo and chuck his corpse down a well. But years later their brutal crime literally comes back to haunt them… and their confused community.

Lust, passion and violence are traits that society deems to be inappropriate, inaccessible or undesirable but these are characteristics that Oshima relishes depicting and exploring – those which reflect the individualism of the protagonists and their rejection of social norms. Initially this is shown as an increasingly erotic set of extra-marital encounters but this story becomes a mere backdrop for an emerging tale of spiritual vengeance. Although Oshima was consistently opposed to the filmmaking styles of his contemporaries, particularly the social realism of Ozu and Naruse, Ai No Borei has an undeniable stylistic connection to such Japanese horror films as Onibaba (1964). This is a period piece, a drama about relationships which is also an engaging supernatural horror theme that explores the paranoia after the crime has been committed as a basis for passion and denial.

Despite indications to the contrary, Ai No Borei, like Ai No Korida, is actually based upon a true story although you should probably take the supernatural shenanigans with as many pinches of salt as you wish. Highly recommended for those seeking a very different combination of horror, sex and art.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983)

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence perhaps remains Oshima’s most famous film, so a re-release on Blu-ray is useful in placing this prisoner of war film in context with his other works.

It is 1942 and the whole world is at war. In a Japanese prisoner of war camp commander Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is attempting to maintain his position, and the camp’s status, by instigating a strict form of regulation and discipline that relate to his own personal moral, religious and cultural beliefs, sometimes assisted by Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano) who is, at turns, vicious and occasionally compassionate. Amongst the confused and violated group of inmates is Captain John Lawrence (Tom Conti), who tries to address any cross-cultural misunderstandings in a balanced manner, something he feels capable of achieving through his moderate understanding of Japanese culture and language. But this causes conflict between himself, his captors and his prisoner allies. And the atmosphere in the camp changes significantly with the appearance of a new inmate, Jack Celliers (David Bowie), a personable and forward thinking rebel who, like many, has issues with the dominance of guards.

Oshima’s approach to the themes within this film lies with exploring and challenging elements of Japanese culture and here he includes non-Japanese perceptions in a way that seeks to conclude that neither is superior; rather a revelation that both cultures are open to criticism. In order to address these issues in a non-judgmental way, Oshima approaches much of the filming in a style that gives the viewer the opportunity to form their own interpretation of events and characterisation. It is the titular Mr Lawrence who provides the pivotal role in attempting to show us the ethnic and relational differences between the cultures. Mr Lawrence addresses not only the themes of the film but also its intellectual and emotional conflicts. Primarily, the film is about the complexity of the relationships between the prisoners and their captors as well as the differences between their cultures.

Because the film has such a strong sense of a dual perspective it feels removed from more traditional prisoner of war films such as Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), although Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence gives us a notable backstory to Celliers’ pre-service life which, while providing a more rounded character perspective, does appear to give a Western bias. Many have noted and commented that the two lead characters who were played by popular music stars David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto (who at the time of filming was partly familiar to international audiences for his role as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO)) which adds a further cultural dimension.

A film that has definitely stood the test of time Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is still thoroughly absorbing. One of Oshima’s more accessible films, it is a socio-political historical example of international filmmaking that is as relevant today as the time it was filmed and the era it depicts.