In the Realm of the Senses:Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography

<i>In the Realm of the Senses:</i>Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography

The concept of “obscenity” is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, “obscenity” disappears and there is a certain liberation. When that which one had wanted to see isn’t sufficiently revealed, however, the taboo remains, the feeling of “obscenity” stays, and an even greater “obscenity” comes into being. Pornographic films are thus a testing ground for “obscenity,” and the benefits of pornography are clear. Pornographic cinema should be authorized, immediately and completely. Only thus can “obscenity” be rendered essentially meaningless.

—Nagisa Oshima, from “Theory of Experimental Pornographic Film” (1976)

Though In the Realm of the Senses was made nearly thirty-five years ago, it has never been shown uncensored in Japan. Consequently, though elsewhere acknowledged as a major film, now freely screened in other countries, the true work remains unknown to the Japanese audience.

It is based upon a real incident. A woman named Sada Abe notoriously, if accidentally, killed her lover during the act of love itself. Fleeing the police, she cut off and took with her the very member that had connected them. She still had it when she was apprehended, and she was later convicted.

The story is that of two people very much in love, consumed by it—what the French call l’amour fou. An extreme example would be the aptly titled L’amour fou, Jacques Rivette’s 1968 film, where the love-maddened couple destroy not only each other but also the apartment house where they live. It was shown without difficulty in France and elsewhere. Equally, in Japan, two other films of the Sada Abe story, Noboru Tanaka’s A Woman Called Sada Abe (1975) and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Sada (1998), had no distribution problems.

The reason that the Oshima film has experienced such difficulties in the country of its origin is that it challenges conventional Japanese opinion, and in so doing confronts and defies the political rationales that rest upon it. As the director himself has written, films such as Tanaka’s take sex as subject matter but not as theme and harmlessly inhabit the soft-core pinku eiga category, which was built to contain them.

Oshima, however, was directing a different kind of film, one that he said “broke taboos” by using eroticism not as something for its own sake, as in the “pink film,” but as a vehicle for exploring and demystifying Japanese culture and the resultant Japanese character. For this it was necessary to create a manner of filming, a style that showed everything and at the same time encouraged empathy. This wasn’t two actors trying to titillate us, as in the pink film; the hard-core film Oshima was inventing would be about two real people who are titillating each other. He wanted a politicized eroticism rather than a pornographic performance.

All of Oshima’s films are criticisms of society and the political assumptions that form it. He is interested in reform but rejects the social agendas that often accompany it. He sometimes castigates the left as well as the right, and always assumes that it is the individual and his or her needs that must be politically addressed. He thus bravely faces the major foe, the political system that creates a society and then, to an extent, controls it. In his thirty-odd films, made between 1959 and 1999, he often uses crime to suggest society’s shortcomings. His early films A Town of Love and Hope (1959) and The Sun’s Burial (1960) are about juvenile delinquents; Boy (1969) shows those unfortunates whose only option is criminality; and The Ceremony (1971) displays a complete family system, a political microcosm of Japan itself, and its embrace of corruption.

Empire of Passion (1978), Oshima’s companion film to In the Realm of the Senses, was made while he was undergoing prosecution in Japan for having published the scenario for the earlier film. It is about a fou d’amour couple who kill the woman’s husband and are unable to escape from his ghost. They, too, had no other option and must pay for their crime at the hands of the police. Of the film, Tony Rayns has said that Oshima’s “hatred of the authority figure here reaches heights unseen since Death by Hanging.”

In the Realm of the Senses, too, had political ambitions from its beginnings, and it is these rather than any perceived sexual amorality that have caused its difficulties. There are political indictments every­where in the film—she was originally servant, now she is mistress (in several senses); her (successful) moneymaking operation is prostitu­tion; he opposes (goes in the opposite direction of) the marching Imperial Army—a constant criticism of the theory and practice of forming and running organizations connected with society.


The year is 1936—the February 26 coup has attempted to purge the government, the militant Imperial Way Faction of the army is on the rise, official control of private life is becoming common, the way to the Pacific War is already visible.

As in many of Oshima’s films, the protagonists are outsiders, a couple creating a world of their own. There they celebrate their union by making love. Despite foreseeing their ultimate destination, Oshima approves of this erotic journey, finding it finally pure when contrasted with the filthy machinations of society and its politics.

Sada and Kichizo, her employer (she is working as a maid in his home), become lovers. His wife is jealous, and the two take to meeting at a nearby inn. During their constant meetings and coupling they attempt to be free of all inhibition and repression. They try to transcend both social class and social sexual roles. Their entire life lies in their lovemaking. Yet they can achieve such sexual happiness only in isolation. They are really sufferers of the social order rather than perpetrators of moral crime. Even sex, however, flags, and in her attempts to continue, Sada accidentally kills Kichizo.

As Joan Mellen has noted: “On the allegorical level that the film assumes, all Japanese must live at one remove from contemporary Japanese society to be free of its contaminating feudal influences. Sada and Kichizo flee not merely sexual repression but the militarism of a Japan rushing headlong into imperial conquest; they are in revolt against an entire culture no less than against the mentality that led to war.”

Though he made his film in 1976, Oshima implied that little had changed in the forty years since 1936, that the Japanese government was still domineering. In the film, such authoritarian politics leads to repressed sexuality, and the breaking of film taboos is a necessary component in elucidating this theme.

This—the breaking of sexual taboos—was a major cinematic theme in the 1970s elsewhere as well. Dušan Makavejev made WR: Mysteries of the Organism(1971), Bernardo Bertolucci both The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1972), Robert Altman McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). In addition, other Japanese directors (Shohei Imamura, for example) were interested in elucidating sexuality outside the safe confines of the pinku eiga.

All of these directors knew that they would be accused of making pornography, since their theme made sexual depiction necessary. They would be open to charges of obscenity, even though, then as now, there was little agreement as to just what obscenity was.

In Japan, there was the further complication that obscenity has never been legally defined. The only “law” against it is the law of custom, where it is perceived as “disturbing to society.” This is true of the entire concept of pornography as well. Oshima wrote that “pornography probably was invented as a way to avoid thinking about sex directly.”

And that is what he needed to do in this film: think about sex directly. In order to do so, he must observe it, he must show it. During the court case that resulted from charges of obscenity, Oshima defended himself (February 27, 1978) by stating that “nothing that is expressed is obscene; what is obscene is what is hidden. When we are free to see everything, both obscenity and taboo disappear.” Pornography, he continued, should be encouraged, since through its exposure the idea of the obscene would be revealed as essentially meaningless. This concept of the obscene, far from being criminal, should not even exist in a democracy. And, Oshima demanded in court, “isn’t Japan one of the advanced countries? Isn’t Japan part of the free world? Is not freedom one of the universal principles of humanity, including freedom of sexual expression?”

The director won his case. He was acquitted in 1982, but the ban on showing In the Realm of the Senses remains. It has never been seen complete in Japan; sections are always fogged or mosaicked over. After the film had become famous in the West, supposedly uncut prints were for a time allowed to be shown locally, but spectators discovered that, though the heroine was to an extent displayed, her lover remained as censored as ever. Oshima told the censors that “by cutting and obscuring, you have made my pure film dirty”—and this is true. It is the censorship that makes Oshima’s film seem prurient. This is because In the Realm of the Senses uncut is not in any sense pornographic.


The term pornography is usually in the West defined by its origins: Greek—porno/graphos, “the writings of prostitutes.” That is, adver­tisement, an incitement toward sexual excitement. The reader or viewer is titillated until a sexual climax is achieved, either with a partner or, more commonly, with the viewer’s own hand. Masturbation is usually pornography’s means of sexual gratification. For this to occur, however, a number of stipulations must be observed.

In pornographic films, the intent is to sexually inflame the viewer, and a number of techniques are used. One is to divorce the displayed sex from a demanding story line. Narratives are slight, since the aim is not to tell a story but to exhibit a group of actors. Most porn narratives are quite empty and are designed to be so. Any consideration of narrative consequences, of character, detracts from the recognized aim of titillation.

For this reason, the sexual acts are not photographed in any considered fashion. The only “rule” is that the best view of the genitals ought be somehow obtained. This means that the cameraman must carefully follow the movements of actors who have been instructed to be noticeably active. The idea of a long shot (from far away) or any consideration of the aesthetic possibilities of film is not encountered, and so there is no narrative development as indicated by camera movement. Pornography is deliberately improvisatory.

At the same time, the photographer does have some rules to follow. One of these is the low camera angle. This indicates that the viewer is on the same level with the performers. One is not above them, not merely observing them. Rather, the viewer is partaking—which is the reason for the prevalence of both close-ups and low-level shots.

Contributing to this illusion of intimacy, of partaking, is a certain amateur quality that is carefully crafted. The performers are rarely asked to act, merely to exhibit themselves. Indeed, if they do bring any degree of acting skill, they risk creating feelings for the characters they are enacting. This detracts from the aim of pornography, which is to stimulate sexually and nothing else. Empathy—which is what feeling amounts to—would suggest sympathy, and if the masturbator begins to feel, say, pity for the performing couple, then his or her masturbatory impulse will considerably lessen.

In pornographic film, it must also be suggested that all of this sexual activity is done only for the camera and the solitary viewer. This is one of the reasons that the art of editing is almost unknown in porno, or at least is mostly invisible. The ability of the editor to shape narrative by showing and by not showing cannot apply when the film is specifically designed to show only sexual detail. Hence the insistence upon an apparent spontaneity.

And hence the reassuring presence of the kind of film punctuation that seeks to persuade, that has editorial ambitions. The fade-in, the fade-out, the dissolve, all are used as rhetorical devices in film to suggest a certain accord, to give an idea that some intelligence is guiding the visual display. Though such is common in all films, the use of such punctuation is important in pornography, where it can smooth away any difficulties, can suggest agreement and accord, can “civilize” as well as objectify, can imply “beauty,” and suggest an aesthetic aspect.

At the same time, it is important that the actors be objectified, even dehumanized, so that they can be more used, more objectified by the viewer. Since there is no narrative and little character displayed in the pornographic film, the fornicating actors become the vessels for the sexual ambitions of the viewer.

Viewers are, in other words, alienated. They are alienated from their own body, and from the bodies of others. Indeed, pornography is a func­tion of this alienation. Seen in this fashion, pornography is not so much a symbol of sexual need as it is of a need for self-acceptance and respect.

When Paul Thomas Anderson made his depiction of the world of filmed pornography in the 1997 Boogie Nights, he depicted nothing lubricious, only a need for family, for self-acceptance, for respect. That this filmmaking “family” is held together only by alienating pornography is one of the many ironies of this picture.

It is this insistence upon alienation that makes In the Realm of the Senses one of the least sexually exciting of sexually explicit films. The couple do not, despite the frequency of their couplings, intend to inflame their audience. It is their political predicament that Oshima wishes to portray. Sada and Kichizo may have found their sexual identity, but they are alienated from their society. They find security only at an inn where they are not known; he does no work at all, she “works” only just enough to keep them alive. They are indeed antisocial and engage in antisocial acts.

She prostitutes herself with an older man and finds herself so alienated that she demands that he hit her. Returned to Kichizo, this punishment is repeated, with him asking her to hit him. She dreams of mistreating children. He is passed on the street by a troop of soldiers going off to war (this is 1936) and is made even more aware that he has no part in society. At the end of the film, she is hopelessly “lost” and dreams she is playing hide-and-seek with a younger self. This alienation becomes more and more painful, and with it the solace of sex becomes less and less helpful. Eventually the lovers are driven to punishment games, simply to raise the power of sex, and this leads to her killing him.

The means of death is symptomatic. After many prolonged sexual sessions, the lovers are losing their capacity. She presses the carotid artery in his neck, which increases his blood pressure to the extent that his penis stiffens. She eventually presses too hard and too long, and he dies. Thus the very intensification needed to counter an alienation is the cause of what is described in the film as a mauvais fou tragedy.

In witnessing all of this, we are led to empathy—that answer to alienation. We don’t view these people as merely something to excite us. Though we might be titillated during our initial glimpses of nudity, we are soon turned ambivalent.


This ambivalence is the stuff of art. In a work such as Tristan and Isolde, we are given a fable of love and death just as strong as that of In the Realm of the Senses. And the sex is all there, obvious in the erotic straining and striving music, with its pregnant lulls and its overwhelming climaxes. Yet no one, to my knowledge, ever attained full sexual excitement attending Wagner’s opera, though it is plainly all about orgasm. Nor does a spectator attending a screening of the uncut Oshima film. At the same time, both operagoer and film viewer are put into ambivalent positions.

To be ambivalent is to have a double view. There are, for example, two major ways of viewing nakedness. One way permits us to feel lust, to see the other body as an object, a nude, one that is perhaps attainable. The other way is to see nakedness as a natural human state. Then the other body is revealed as just like ours. We can find it not only natural but also somehow frail, even pitiable, something to be protected rather than exploited. We have experienced empathy: the naked before us are not people but persons. We cannot objectify them because we have subjectively seen that our similarities make us identical.

Creating this empathy is the task that Oshima imposes upon himself, and upon us, in his film. The masterly way in which he accomplishes this constitutes a lesson in cinematic means to psychological ends, and can be applied to many examples other than the pornographic. His techniques in writing, directing, and photographing In the Realm of the Senses are, in fact, the opposite of those outlined above as typical of the average pornographic film.

Rather than employ an excited camera that wildly roams over the copulating bodies, always searching for the perfect view of the genitals, Oshima employs static shots. The camera is on a tripod, restrained. Often, too, it is some distance from the actors. We see all of them, not just their sexual organs.

We are also not on their level, and are thus not invited to partake. The camera is usually above the actors, looking down on them. This angle means that a distance is suggested. We are not on the futon or the bed with them. But we are never “above” them in any judgmental sense. Rather, we are given the view that sees them whole, as other human beings engaged in pleasure. We are not encouraged to see them as chopped-up body parts that we can in our imagination take the place of. Also among the antipornographic intentions of the film, I would have to include the fact that all Japanese viewers would already know that Kichizo’s penis is to be cut off. The idea of an amputated penis is no encouragement to the engorgement of one’s own.

Likewise, the editing distances. We have no fades or dissolves encouraging us to slip and slide into the positions we are watching. The only punctuation that Oshima allows himself here is the straight cut, the basis of editing, the least editorial of linking devices.

This built-in neutrality is one of the reasons that Yasujiro Ozu, for example, used only straight cuts. He did not want to editorialize for his viewer; he wanted his viewer to discover his own opinion, not have it forced on him by a dissolve that links scenes and suggests similarities, or by a fade that limits the experience of the scene itself.

At the same time, Oshima uses ellipsis (as does Ozu) to forward narrative. Much is left out—only the necessary is shown. The missing portions of the story define for us the restricted intentions of the narrative. Surely the couple did more than make love—they had regular meals, they talked to each other about something other than love, they maybe even read books. None of this is shown, however, because it is not necessary to the narrative Oshima is constructing.

And for him, a narrative is (unlike in most pornographic films) important. He needs a beginning, a middle, and an end (merely pornographic films have no tenses; they are timeless; they take only as long as it takes to look at them). Though Oshima’s film is not heavily plotted and the story line is purposely kept simple, the movement and resolution of the narrative is essential to the effect toward which he is moving. For this reason, though the real Sada and Kichizo were in fact together only for six days, Oshima lengthened that time period to six months.

With the need for narrative comes a concern for character, since it is through our identification with these lovers that we experience the very empathy that prevents our feelings from being merely lustful, possessive, sexual.

These two characters are supported by the “realm of the senses” in which they live, since they live nowhere else, and their existence is predicated upon their need to make love. This, however, does not make either character any less convincing, particularly when the parts are taken by experienced actors of such power and persuasion—especially Eiko Matsuda in the role of Sada. Any hints of the amateur (so necessary in a porn picture) are obliterated by the believability of the characters created and by the skill and bravery of the actors.

All of this Oshima deploys in a manner that shows that narrative is the result of character. At the beginning of the picture, for example, Sada picks up a knife; at the end of the film, she uses a knife. The two, Sada and Kichizo, change kimonos, a happening allegorical of their changing mutual situations. One narrative mode is that dominance moves from him to her (unlike in a pornographic film, where power is always male). Another is that the games of punishment are seen as a result not of too much lovemaking but of too much social repression.

Oshima’s concern is to keep this repression in full view throughout his film. That is the reason for the sudden shift in tone at the end. We have been very close to these people, but now we are moved back. A voice-over, the first in the film, the voice of society itself, tells us what happened after that. The tone is neutral but objectively unfriendly. Just as Japanese society has finally defined these two, so now the film defines this social attitude. But we, by this time, know that this ending is the tragic consequence of individuals resisting a culture that denies freedom and thwarts human fulfillment. Seen in this light, In the Realm of the Senses becomes something like a Romeo and Juliet for our times.

That this strong and beautiful film remains unseen and unappre­ciated in Japan is a scandal. But this brave picture has had to put up with a lot. It was made (in just thirty days) on a closed set at the old Daiei studios in Kyoto, but because of the nature of the footage, it could not be legally processed in Japan. The exposed negative was sent to France and was processed and edited there.

Though the picture was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, it was initially refused by American censors when it was proposed for the New York Film Festival, and there were likewise difficulties with the first showings in England. These difficulties were, however, shortly solved: it was in London that I first saw the film uncut. Difficulties in Japan continue.

Symptomatic of these is what happened to the actors. Tatsuya Fuji, who played Kichizo, went on to become a well-known film and TV personality, appearing also in a number of well-paying commercials (Cabin cigarettes, etc.). Matsuda, however, was vilified by the media for her brave performance, and later left the country. The last time I saw her, she was living in Rome.

In his 1976 essay “Theory of Experimental Pornographic Film,” Oshima makes the point that “once seen, In the Realm of the Senses can no longer be viewed as pornographic. This happens in Europe and the United States, where it can be seen in its entirety.” Thus in Japan the film is forced into the category of pornography simply because it cannot be seen.

Maureen Turim, in her monograph on Oshima, notes that the film structures itself in opposition to the expected coding of pornography. She observes that this entails a critique of the pornographic genre, with its “potential complaisance with entertainment imperatives that make it lack subversion or resistance, that allow it to conform to restrictive gender roles and enforce power relations in its manner of presenting sexual imagery.”

In the Realm of the Senses certainly satisfies none of these porno requirements. Rather, it actively challenges such assumptions. It is truly subversive: it questions current mores, political as well as sexual, and in so doing, it offers the interested viewer a lesson in the psychological dynamics of film technique.


This essay, here appearing in English for the first time, was adapted from one originally published in Japanese translation in the Studio Ghibli  monthly magazine Neppu in December 2006. It will appear in Japanese in the second volume of Donald Richie’s Eiga rikaigaku nyumon (Studio Ghibli, 2009) and in English in the complete Viewing Film (Taurus, 2009).

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