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Nagisa Oshima on In the Realm of the Senses

The following article, based on an interview with Nagisa Oshima conducted by Katsue Tomiyama in April 1983, first appeared, in slightly longer form, in the Japanese magazine Image Forum. Tomiyama is a film producer and cofounder of Image Forum, and she played one of the inn’s young maids in In the Realm of the Senses. The article was translated for this release by Ted Goossen.


Starting to work on In the Realm of the Senses

In the Realm of the Senses was shot in 1975 and released in 1976. I had visited Paris after taking my film Dear Summer Sister to the Venice Film Festival, where I had met the Polish Jewish producer Anatole Dauman, a most intellectual man who had shown my films Death by Hanging and The Ceremony in Paris and who, as you doubtless know, had been involved in a number of films by cutting-edge French directors, including Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour; Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her; and later, after Realm was released, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum. Anyway, Dauman suggested that we collaborate on a new film, an idea I naturally found very exciting, although I had no idea what kind of film he had in mind. When I asked, he said, “Let’s make a porno flick!” This surprised me at first, but when I stopped to think, I realized it could be a very good idea to take a shot at something like that. As soon as I got back to Japan, I sent him two proposals, one for a film on the Sada Abe incident, the other for an adaptation of the story, credited to Kafu Nagai, “What I Found Under the Papering in the Little Room.” After reading them, Dauman enthusiastically elected to go with Sada Abe.

Still, I hadn’t a clue how to go about making the film. This troubled me a lot, and I ended up sitting on it for exactly three years. I basically took that whole time off. When directors are inactive for that long of a stretch, critics generally blame other people, or a particular set of circumstances. In my opinion, however, the biggest reason is usually subjective—they have lost their inner balance, and that makes it impossible for them to create. Sure, I wanted to do the Sada Abe story, or “What I Found Under the Papering in the Little Room,” but once I got past that desire, I had no clear method, no idea how such films could actually be realized. So I couldn’t make them. I returned from abroad in 1972, a time when the Roman porno films [a soft-core series] being turned out by Nikkatsu were really beginning to take off. In fact, I made the trek out to Kawasaki City to see Toru Murakawa’s Shiroi yubi no tawamure and Tatsumi Kumashiro’s Wet Lips, only to realize that I could never match them. I really thought they were great. But after a long period debating how to go about making films like those, I finally realized there was no point in trying to imitate them. In the end, I would have to find a method that fit my physical makeup. But I couldn’t find it. This situation continued for some time.

It was in the summer of 1975, I think, that the French removed all restrictions on the production of pornography. The moment I heard that, I thought, All right! Since ours was planned as a coproduction between France and Japan, if we called it a French film, we would have perfect freedom to show whatever we wanted. In that case, I thought, why not make something “hard-core”? What had once seemed so difficult now seemed terribly easy: I could shoot the film in Japan and then have it developed and edited in France. Even the final cut could be done there.

Throughout Realm’s long gestation process, something had been percolating in the back of my mind. In 1972, during my trip abroad, I had made my first visit to the United States, for a retrospective of my films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. While there, I had been blown away by my initial exposure to real porno films. Wow! I thought. These are really something! This might be the way to shoot the Sada Abe story. Then when France got rid of all restrictions, the idea resurfaced.

The first person I had contacted about writing a scenario was Toei’s Michinori Fukao, in Kyoto, who had written Death by Hanging. By 1975, though, he had still failed to produce a completed draft, so I sent him my apologies and plunged into writing one myself. I was determined not to make the same mistake I had with Pleasures of the Flesh—this time, I would make sure to eliminate all that was extraneous and focus solely on those elements that had to do with sex. I think this is one reason I liked In the Realm of the Senses so much when it was finished. Once the scenario was done, I contacted Hayao Shibata and Kazuko Kawakita, the two people who looked after the distribution of my films in France, and they helped me get it translated and sent to Anatole Dauman. His response was enthusiastic, which meant the next step was to decide when to get the project underway.

Joining forces with the man with the magic touch, Koji Wakamatsu

When I started putting my staff together, my first thought was to enlist Koji Wakamatsu as my [line] producer. This was a master­stroke, if I do say so myself. The journal I kept on the film includes a note that if he said yes, our success was assured. As I have said on many occasions, he is precisely the sort of man you want on your side when setting out on a risky venture, a born winner. We met at my favorite bar in Shinjuku, in downtown Tokyo. He had taken my summons to mean that he was going to be asked to act in my new film, but once he got over his surprise, he accepted readily. When you are preparing for battle, you need a guy beside you who is really strong, or at least lucky, if you want to succeed. I was pretty sure Koji Wakamatsu was both. If the two of us couldn’t pull it off, we agreed, then no one could. We both wanted it that badly.

We began preparing right away, with Koji Wakamatsu beginning to assemble the crew. It had been several years since my last film, so my own crew had almost entirely dispersed, the sole exception being production designer Jusho Toda, a most remarkable fellow, who had been waiting for me all that time. I had thought he should take other jobs, but he decided that if I was going to take time off, then he would too, so he did virtually nothing. Anyway, we decided to start with him. We also agreed that we would shoot the film in Kyoto, at the Daiei studios [. . .]

By this time, the storied second lot, where Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu had been shot, was very rickety, but we nevertheless chose it as the place where we would build our sets.

When it came time to decide how to actually shoot a porno film, however, we all began to have second thoughts. In the end, we decided to leave the problem to Wakamatsu and the cinematographer with whom he had worked for so long, Hideo Ito. Still, since we felt that it was important that Ito feel completely comfortable the moment he walked on the set, we asked an old Daiei hand, Kenichi Okamoto, to take care of the lighting [. . .]

There were a number of assistant directors I could have called on, including Kiyoshi Ogasawara, but basically I decided to leave their selection to Wakamatsu. He apparently wanted Ogasawara, but the arrangement didn’t work out, so he went out and found Yoichi Sai, who just directed the film The Mosquito on the 10th Floor. Sai was someone whom Wakamatsu knew well—the two of them often went out drinking together, and Sai frequently visited Wakamatsu’s offices—but in fact Sai had never worked on one of Wakamatsu’s films, nor had he ever run a crew. Despite that, Wakamatsu made Sai the chief assistant director on my film! This seems a strange way of choosing someone for such an important post, but Wakamatsu has an eye for people, and Sai turned out to be a major talent. One could even say he was born to play the role, and it was Wakamatsu’s genius to pick up on that and attach him to my film. Later, Wakamatsu would add two more from his own circle, Katsue Tomiyama and Susumu Iwabushi, to our team.

The trickiest problem we faced was finding actors. I anticipated that the fact that we would be asking them to have actual sex in front of the camera would be a huge obstacle. Contrary to my expectation, however, finding women to audition turned out to be easy: they came in great numbers, saying if sex was required, well, that was no big deal. In the end, even my wife, the actor Akiko Koyama, said that if no one else would do it, then she would be willing. I was floored by this, but she later explained that she had only said it to help the process—that if word got out that she was willing, then other actors would know it was a good role and feel more comfortable about auditioning for it. At any rate, thanks to intrepid opinions like these, we were able to move fairly quickly in auditioning the role of Sada Abe.

The selection of Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji for the principal roles

Strangely, Eiko Matsuda, who ended up being cast as Sada Abe, was the very first actor we auditioned for the part. She had delicate skin, to be sure, but it was the delicacy of her heart, something one could see right off the bat, that made me want her in this role. Still, it is better to be safe than sorry, so we went ahead and auditioned another fifty actors, ending up with a very short list: Matsuda and one other candidate. We put both through a brief acting test, and when it was done, Wakamatsu and I were in perfect agreement—Eiko Matsuda was the one. This was a decision we never regretted. We began our very first day of shooting by telling her and the crew that we wanted her to run from one spot on the set to another to conduct a camera check. Then, at the very last minute, we asked her if she wouldn’t mind stripping and doing it naked. Without blinking, she took off all her clothes, and the crew went ahead and filmed her running as if nothing were out of the ordinary. When I saw this, I shouted to Wakamatsu, “We’re on our way. This is going to work!”

Finding a male lead, however, proved a lot more difficult—practically no one was interested in the role. “You must be kidding,” the actors would say. “There’s no way I could get it up on set with you watching me.” Or, “You’ve got the wrong guy. I’m bigger than most when I’m in action, but the rest of the time I think I’m a bit on the small side.” Seven or eight guys out of ten fell into this latter group. It shocked me how hung up men are about the size of their penis. It might have come across as cute if they had said, “I’m a bit on the small side,” and stopped there. But, no, they had to add that they were “bigger than most” when they were “in action,” a lame excuse if there ever was one. The experience made me feel that men are really pitiful creatures who get hung up on the most trivial things. Later I realized that the confident ones were the few who said, “I’m just average,” and left it at that [. . .]

Koji Wakamatsu and I struggled on unsuccessfully in our search for a male lead, right up to the day before the press conference announcing the film. At the last minute, Yoichi Sai reintroduced the name of Tatsuya Fuji, an actor he had suggested earlier in the process. Sai was in favor of asking Fuji, and Wakamatsu was willing to go along, but I had not been impressed by his work on the TV show Jikan desu yo! or in the Nikkatsu films I’d seen him in, so I wasn’t all that enthusiastic. Now, with our backs against the wall, I discovered that Sai had broached the idea with Fuji, and that Fuji had been receptive. So we summoned him to a coffee shop near the office, where he was given a copy of the scenario to read. Wakamatsu stayed with him from that point on, and they ended up at a bar in Shinjuku. Since virtually all of the actors we had approached had turned us down, I figured Fuji would too, so I went back to the place I always stayed in Tokyo, the Azabu Prince Hotel, drowned my cares in liquor, and went to bed. Then, in the middle of the night, I got a phone call from Wakamatsu. “How can you sleep at a time like this? Aren’t you worried?” he shouted into the phone. “Worrying doesn’t help,” I answered, “so I might as well sleep. Anyway, how did it go?” “We drank and drank, but he wouldn’t say whether he’d take the part. I put up with it as long as I could, but then finally I had to come out and ask him, ‘Well, will you do it or not? I mean, we’ve been sitting here drinking all this time and you still haven’t given me a straight answer. What is it, yes or no?’ And you know what he said? ‘Of course I’ll do it—that’s why we’re here drinking together, isn’t it?’” Fuji’s acceptance had sent Wakamatsu’s spirits sky-high, and he just had to phone me. So Fuji took the part, and as you can see, it turned out pretty darn well.

On the universality of filmmaking techniques

Writing the part of Kichizo was a bit difficult. Sada Abe’s words are on the record in her trial deposition, and they express her viewpoint so beautifully one can use them almost word for word in filling out her character. Kichizo, though, was a blank page—no documents exist that tell us what kind of man he was, or what his feelings may have been at the time. As a result, I had to make him up almost entirely from scratch. The Kichizo I created in this fashion could be symbolized by the line “I’ll do anything for you”; in other words, a man willing to treat his own life lightly to satisfy a woman’s desire. Fuji’s performance captured this essence perfectly. In fact, I don’t think we could have cast the film any better [. . .]

Outsiders were strictly banned from the set. We were extremely worried that, given our film’s unprecedented nature, the police might come barging into the Daiei Kyoto studios at any time. In a funny way, though, this heightened level of tension may have improved the final film. Fuji was a concern as well. True, he was playing a man done in by excessive lovemaking, but he took this to an extreme, cutting down on his food until he finally stopped eating entirely. He dropped almost twenty pounds, and his face changed, making him look very noble and spiritual. He seemed to have reached some point beyond acting. This was another reason why the shooting went so well.

The fact that all our film was going to be developed at the LTC labs in France, and not in Japan, made my cinematographer and lighting director very uneasy. So when we got the telegram from Paris telling us that the exposure of the first rushes was “normal,” we were ecstatic. After that, we put our trust in the skills of the people over there and stopped worrying. After we wrapped up shooting in late 1975, first Keiichi Uraoka, from editing, and then Tetsuo Yasuda, the soundman, flew to Paris to begin putting the film together. Then, in January, Koji Wakamatsu, Jusho Toda, and I followed them. The day we screened the rushes for the first time was a moving experience for all of us. Then we set about finishing the film, using LTC labs for the editing and the SIMO Recording Studios for the sound mix. The labs, which looked out over the lower reaches of the Seine, were fantastic, while the recording studio provided delicious lunches. In fact, all of us thoroughly enjoyed working in Paris, both the production system the French used and the city itself. In the beginning, I worried about the technical differences between their system and ours, but it turned out that their dubbing processes, for example, made a good deal more sense than ours did, and the whole environment provided a refined and even elegant atmosphere for our work. All my worries vanished, and by the time we finished the film, my conviction that the cinematic arts constitute an international language was stronger than ever. In that sense, making In the Realm of the Senses was a truly fortunate experience.

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