Oshima Nagisha’s most notorious film is the stuff of arthouse legends – declared obscene in Japan, where it was subjected to lengthy legal trials and remains optically blurred to this day and a cause scandale at Cannes where extra showings were arranged to meet demand. Bizarrely when UK censorship was at its most esoteric, Ai no corrida was passed with just a scant few seconds reframed to comply with the Protection of Children Act (not entirely tallying with Mellen’s assertion that the scene is heavily censored, more in tune with Tom Dewe Matthews’ declaration in ‘Censored’ that this is perhaps one of the most sensitively altered scenes in BBFC history – a view also borne out by the fact that then head censor James Ferman sought Oshima’s permission to alter the film in that way).
Perhaps this is an indication that for all its reputation it is not a pornographic film in the conventional sense. This is the view that Joan Mellen holds in the latest in the BFI’s slim but enticing books on classic cinema. Oshima, Mellen argues, is a resolutely Japanese director who basically makes films for Japanese consumption, an irony being that In The Realm of the Senses marked the first in a series of films that needed funding from abroad. Ironic, also, in that Oshima’s intention to portray his sexual scenes in unflinching hardcore detail was counter to the Japanese censor’s strict guidelines on the depiction of genitalia and pubic hair.
Despite his declaration to create films for Japanese sensibilities alone, Oshima confronts Japanese modern living like a man possessed, contrasting traditional ideals of Japanese morality with invading Westernised morality, which is seen as a corrupting influence. To this end the lovers Kichi and Abe are seen as the distillation of an earlier, less tainted and wholly Japanese morality, unaffected by sexual taboos or post-Meiji Western dilution. Their love is all consuming, free of inhibition and narcisstically innocent, but by its very nature all consuming and inherently nihilistic.
Well before the film’s celebrated shock ending the couple have become self-obsessed characters totally defined by their rampant sexual drives. Even when parted their roles are purely sexual – Abe reverts to her trade as a prostitute to pay the rent while Kichi remains with his wife and rapes the proprietress of the ryokan. Their freedom flies directly in the face of oppressive social mores. Mellen argues that Oshima’s depiction of their sexuality is in part due to earlier definitions of acceptable Japanese sexual behaviour but also as part of a movement of sex-as-revolutionary-politics films that includes Bunuel’s almost entire output as well as Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971 and Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris (1972).
This last film is a particularly odd choice perhaps, for while there is no denying political intent in Bertolucci’s films, the very fact that Brando remains clothed places restraints on cinematic depiction and is misogynist in a way that objectifies the female form in a standard heterosexual male pornographic gaze. It’s a similar fault that Mellen seems willing to tar Noguku’s other version of the Abe Sada case The True Story of Abe Sada (1975, also known as A Woman Called Abe Sada). Indeed while it is true that In The Realm of the Senses is not a pornographic film per se there is little comparison with eiga pinku/roman porno films or even to Japanese cinema as a whole (other than to note Oshima’s rejection of the "traditional" Japanese film styles of Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi – all of whom represent a style of filmmaking familiar to Western arthouse audiences).
Mellen’s book follows the career of Oshima, the context of the film politically against the pivotal year in which the story is set, as well as details of Abe Sada herself (found wandering the streets with the severed penis of her lover wrapped in a handkerchief) and comparisons with other art/sex/politics crossovers. There is an extensive deconstruction of the film’s mise en scene, a history of its funding and a look at the film’s impact historically. Overall a fascinating companion to a fascinating film – like its subject it is both graphic but distanced.