Review: In the Realm of the Senses (1972)

Directed by:
Cast: ,

Distributed in Australia by:

I’d probably have to call this one an example of hardcore arthouse erotica. You might call it a stick film with subtitles. Whatever we call it, it’s a challenging film with an awful lot of sex. An awful lot. The frequency of the sex gives rise to serious questions about abrasion and probably exhaustion. Sex sex sex sex sex, lashings of it. Phwoooar.

Now that the obligatory sleazy response is done with, I can get on with a more measured review. And this film does deserve a measured review, as it’s a good film dealing with a troubling subject. Abe Sada’s obsession with her lover Kichi, their month-long bonkfest, and the ultimate fate of the relationship, have been the subject of at least two cinematic treatments beside this one: The Abe Sada Story (1975) and Sada (1996). The story itself, dating from 1936, is well-known in Japan, combining as it does the topics of sex and death.

This film, unlike the others, does not attempt to treat Sada’s sad history, something that may have contributed to her rather odd behaviour. Far from pretending to be a documentary, this view considers only the snippet of life between Sada’s first meeting with her lover, and the end of their relationship, which was after all only a short interlude in Sada’s apparently long life. But this short snippet is full of action.

And director Oshima uses this action to try to lure us into the heady sensual world inhabited by the lovers. He does so with some of the most explicit sexual scenes I’ve seen in quite a while: they overshadow corresponding scenes in Romance, the recent controversial French film. For something that was made in 1976 in Japan, and released in some mainstream cinemas, that’s quite astonishing. Oshima tricked his way around the Japanese censorship board, however, by using the French co-production status to ship the salacious scenes to France for “production”.

Oshima succeeds to a certain extent: he manages to evoke some sense of the insular, desire-driven, obsessive world of the lovers. But this sense is continually being broken by the disjointed nature of the narrative. We see scenes without any connecting tissue, and have to spend time inferring from the current scene the missing events. Disconcerting. Not to mention the frequent and enthusiastic sex, which tends to distract from the main story.

The setting of the mood is probably most successful in one scene where the pensive Sada turns away a maid offering to clean the room. When told that it smells (and one can just imagine), Sada replies that “We like it”. And she is disconsolate when she returns to find that the room has been cleaned in her absence, and their carefully cultivated smell is gone. Alas, the transitory nature of love. Or something like that.

I can’t say I loved it, but I can’t say I hated it. A complex film that produces a complex response, is perhaps how I’d describe it.

Or perhaps as a raving Japanese bonkfest.

6 musky boudoirs out of 10.
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