Blu-ray Reviews: IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES and EMPIRE OF PASSION

Two of renowned Japanese New Wave director Nagisa Oshima’s best known and most sexually explicit films come to Blu-ray

Robert Beames

Contributor

Today sees the hi-def release of two of the most controversial and sexually explicit films of the 1970s, both of which came courtesy of Japanese New Wave auteur Nagisa Oshima – later the director of the more widely seen David Bowie-starring WWII movie Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (incidentally itself coming to Blu-ray next week… we are giving copies away HERE).

In two tastefully presented “double play” Blu-ray/DVD sets from StudioCanal come 1976’s In the Realm of the Senses and 1978’s more restrained thematic follow-up Empire of Passion. Both films share the same leading man, Tatsuya Fuji, but whilst the former was either banned or heavily censored upon released due to its many graphic scenes of “unsimulated sex”, the latter (less explicit) work earned Oshima a well deserved Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

 

In the Realm of the Senses

 

Rating: ★★★½☆

Oshima’s most critically significant text, written about and tittered over in film studies classrooms to this day, may be over thirty years old, yet it’s lost none of its power to shock. A lot may have changed in cinema in that time in terms of censorship, but still very few “mainstream” films incorporate “unsimulated” sex acts. Vincent Gallo took directorial self-gratification to new heights when he had then girlfriend Chloë Sevigny fellate him on camera for 2003’s widely reviled The Brown Bunny, whilst the rather more respected Michael Winterbottom interspersed scenes of sex with scenes of live rock n’ roll music to equally risible effect the following year in 9 Songs. Among these works Oshima’s stands apart: holding up as an interesting exploration of sex, desire and obsession (and not necessarily love).

With its lead character deriving sexual thrills from acts of pain (strangulation, hair-pulling and beatings) it would be seemingly obvious to conclude that her name Sada is a play on the term “Sadism” and that the film’s story is another cautionary tale on the danger of aggressive feminine sexuality. However, I was surprised to find – as suggested the film’s clumsy, hastily delivered concluding narration – that Sada Abe (played by Eiko Matsuda) was a real person, apparently famous in Japan for committing the very leg-closing crime of passion infamously depicted in the the final scene.

Set in 1936, the aforementioned Tatsuya Fuji is cast as Kichizo Ishida, the philandering innkeeper who takes former prostitute Sada as his mistress after she comes to work as his maid. Early on, whilst molesting her at work, he asks “are you ashamed of your desire?” before assuring her that “life is made for pleasure”, and this is a central concept in Oshima’s film which uses unflinching footage of oral sex, ejaculation and a masturbating old tramp to ask questions about sex and obsession. The question many will ask is “are unsimulated sex acts required to tell this story?” And sidestepping the argument of whether or not that matters anyway, I think to tell this story (which is all about sex) whilst coquettishly avoiding showing actual acts would be to sanitise and undermine its point. Quite honestly I think Oshima’s film uses sex in the name of frankness – a fact which is even more startling in the context of sexually repressed Japanese cinema than it would be in our own.

Indeed popular attitudes towards sex – and (pre-emptively) the critical reception of the film itself – are arguably satirised within the film. The couple have sex in almost every scene, regardless of whether servants, maids or performing geisha girls are present (one scene even concludes in a geisha orgy). The point is: they are almost always the object of voyeurism which masquerades itself as indignant and condemnatory whilst all the while it’s actually a relief for a widely held sexual frustration. At one point a housekeeper complains to the couple about their constant fornicating, saying all the inn’s other employees have refused to bring them sake. As they resume their copulation in front of her regardless, she screams “scandalous!” before retreating from the room – only to stop and momentarily peer back, so as to glimpse as much of the action as she can in a brilliantly observed and very subtle moment.

Another maid later takes a similarly disapproving tone, saying “they say all you do is suck him all day long” only for Sada to reply in anger “and what’s wrong with that?” What indeed? That seems to be the question underpinning the entire film. Technically a French production, the reels of “L’Empire des sens” were shipped to France for post-production work in order to get around more stringent Japanese censorship laws, and Oshima – as a critic of the old guard of Japanese filmmaking (not a Kurosawa fan by all accounts) – seems to have been asking this very question of his domestic cinema. More than that, it’s like he’s challenging us to grow up.

But my favourite scene in this classic is one of the few that does not contain any sex acts at all – as Sada first recognises the immense sense of loss that will follow the death of her lover. In a haunting and visually stunning moment Sada imagines herself naked lying on what look like the bare wooden foundations of Ishida’s hotel, in a world devoid of intimacy, privacy or colour (a realm without senses?). It’s the most human moment in an unmistakably significant film which I admire much more than enjoy.

Empire of Passion

Rating: ★★★★½

Less often talked about film than its risqué forbear, Empire of Passion is arguably the superior film – certainly from the perspective of storytelling. Whereas In the Realm of the Senses is almost plotless in the conventional sense, here Oshima tells a really compelling ghost story, complete with gory bits, jumpy bits and truly horrifying bits, as well as scenes of (this time simulated) sex.

The dialogue is more naturalistic and central actor Tatsuya Fuji a more charismatic – if morally bankrupt – lead here, channelling the spirit of Toshiro Mifune at his most catlike (think Rashomon). Tatsuya plays Toyoji, who begins a passionate affair with an older woman: Seki played by Kazuko Yoshiyuki. There is no way Tatsuya looks 16 years younger than Kazuko, but it’s best not to worry about it too much. Rather more worrying is the scene in which their affair is consummated, which would give Straw Dogs a run for its money, as Toyoji rapes Seki in front of her infant son. As she covers her ears to drown out his crying, does she do so because it makes the torment even worse or because (as her lover claims) she has started to enjoy the encounter? It’s ambiguous, but in the following scene the two are engaged in a fully-fledged affair, so perhaps the latter is implied. Here, as with In the Realm of the Senses, the central passion is born from sexual assault.

Also as in Realm, we know that there is only one thing passion leads to for Oshima: violent crime. When Toyoji suddenly demands Seki shave her pubic hair during an act of cunnilingus, the moment (amusingly) becomes the unlikely catalyst for murder.  With Seki freshly shaven, Toyoji insists they will have to kill her rickshaw-pulling husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) before he sees and suspects she is having an affair. It’s the shame that follows the moment of euphoria. It is then that they decide to strangle the unsuspecting Gisaburo after plying him with sake, throwing him down a well were he will be “left to rot until there’s nothing left.” Moments defined by an unsettling close-up of the victim’s arms raised in desperate prayer as he is choked to death and by a breathtaking shot from the point of view of the well, as his body is dumped on a sombre and very snowy night.

Though, of course, dumping the body and hoping that there will be “nothing left” is not a viable option in a culture open to the concept of spirits almost to the point of banality – and Gisaburo duly returns as a pale-skinned ghost to haunt his guilt-ridden widow, to the surprise of absolutely no one (Toyoji’s first nonchalant response is akin to “just ignore him”). Gisaburo’s ghost is – until a spectacularly gruesome moment late on – completely non-threatening. He simply sits around his old house drinking sake, eating sweet potatoes and quietly driving Seki insane.

Is this a deliberate ploy to drive her to confess or is he simply visiting the woman he still loves? Either way, the spirit appears to other villagers several times (often with his rickshaw) but never divulges the identity of his killers. Instead he allows Seki to wallow in her guilt (she is driven at one point to pour sake down the well, which she does in the manner of the perfect Japanese hostess) and drives the now paranoid Toyoji to commit another murder in an effort to cover up his crimes. Another participant of the hysteria of the final act is a slightly sleazy police inspector (Takuzo Kawatani) who comes to the village in search of the missing Gisaburo and immediately suspects the couple of committing his murder, ensuring a gripping finale.

Empire of Passion is masterful, as Oshima continues to play on the central premise of his previous film but with much more visual flair and a horror story that is interesting regardless of the subtext. The way in which the film’s three or four simple locations are so tangibly changed by events and the passing of the seasons is incredible, as is his use of close-ups: withheld for the most impactful moments that require them rather than being doled out every other shot. In the Realm of the Senses may be the canonised text – the more historically significant and influential work – but for my money Empire of Passion is definitely the stronger film.

Extras

Whilst these attractively packaged Blu-rays promise lavishly remastered high-definition transfers of both films, we were only sent the DVD from these Blu-ray/DVD “double play” packs. Therefore I’m unable to pass judgement on the sound or picture, or indeed the special features – which are absent from the DVD discs. What I can do is list here the extras on each release.

In the Realm of the Senses:

  • Once Upon A Time In The Realm Of Senses
  • Recalling The Film: 2003 program featuring interviews with consulting producer Hayao Shibata, line producer Koji Wakamatsu, assistant Director Yoichi Sai and distributor Yoko Asakura.
  • Sex In Japanese Cinema: Critical discussion filmed at Birbeck College by kind permission of the Centre of Media, Culture and Creative Practice.
  • Deleted Scenes

Empire of Passion:

  • Sur Le Tournage: 2003 interview program featuring production consultant Koji Wakamatsu and assistant directors Yusuke Narita and Yoichi Sai
  • Sex In Japanese Cinema – critical discussion of Empire of Passion

On the basis of these lists, it seems the older, more controversial film has unsurprisingly been laden with more extra features – though both boast apparently “critical” and academic discussions on sex in Japanese cinema, which promise to be interesting. And with In the Realm of the Senses providing deleted scenes, it would certainly be interesting to see some of what Oshima left on the cutting room floor. More scenes of hardcore sex or something very different?

In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion are both released on Double Play Blu-ray and DVD today.