Nagisa Ôshima’s 1976 opus In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida) set off one of the most bitter censorship disputes of the 1970s. The battle was particularly bitter in Australia, where the movie was finally released more or less uncut in 2001. The most fascinating aspect of the arguments that raged over this movie was what they revealed about the bizarre world of film snobbery.
This movie was one of the more notorious cases of the repellant doctrine of “artistic merit” being used to justify special treatment for a movie. The same argument was trotted out in Australia during the controversies over Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs and Catherine Breillat's Romance. The crux of this argument is that if you can get a note signed by a group of film snobs that says your movie is “art” then you should be allowed to get away with content that would never be allowed to any movie that don’t get that highly coveted “artistic merit” stamp of approval. In Australia any film that shows actual sex is automatically classified as pornography and can only be obtained from sex shops, unless of course the movie is “art.” Personally I find this to be an appallingly elitist and hypocritical argument, with the implication that nice chardonnay-sipping latte-drinking middle-class audiences who will only watch sub-titled movies should be allowed to watch things that the Great Unwashed must be protected from. But that’s the way censorship in Australia works.
I should add that I don’t believe any movie should be subjected to censorship, but the idea of special treatment for particular audiences really annoys me.
So having got my little rant out of the way, is In the Realm of the Senses any good? The short answer is no. It’s not as terminally boring as 9 Songs, but it’s close. It is basically a porn movie with a few artistic trappings. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re looking for, except that this is also one of the least erotic and most mind-numbingly tedious movies ever made. Perhaps that’s how you can tell that it qualifies as art? Who knows?
The threadbare plot involves a woman working in a geisha house/brothel who has an affair with the man who runs the establishment with his wife. They have lots and lots and lots of sex, and it all ends in tears. Unfortunately so much time is consumed by the sex scenes that we learn nothing of the couple’s motivations or personalities, and so we don’t care what happens to them. Some rather poor acting doesn’t help. Ôshima’s staggeringly dull direction helps even less. He apparently disliked most Japans cinema and considered it to be too aesthetic, so it’s possible he was trying deliberately to make his movie dull and ugly. If so, he succeeded admirably. The “shock” ending isn’t much of a shock since it’s fairly obvious that the movie is leading to some such conclusion, and for me it had no impact since I didn’t care about the characters.
On the plus side it does make an attempt to present a female perspective on sex. That’s a good thing, and it makes it more of a pity that the execution was so poor. And more of a pity that we weren’t offered any hint as to why Sada behaved the way she did. The other argument advanced in favour of the movie was that the director was consciously breaking taboos. Which is OK I guess, although it strikes me as being a bit adolescent unless there’s a point to it. I’ve also heard it argued that the film critiques Japanese society in the 1930s and the rise of militarism. I must have slept through that part.
If you really want to see classy porn dealing with similar kinks see Radley Metzger’s The Image instead. It’s more stylish, more entertaining, more erotic and more intelligent. Of course you can’t see it in Australia since Radley forget to get a note saying his movie was Art.
And if you want to see a much better version of the same story check out Noboru Tanaka's A Woman Called Abe Sada (Jitsuroku Abe Sada), made a year earlier.