40 years ago, In the Realm of the Senses was released, sparking uproar and an obscenity trial. The film’s notoriety stems from its explicit, unsimulated sex scenes, yet director Nagisa Ôshima was not someone who merely traded in prurient shock. He was an intellectual, and a highly political filmmaker. While the film today receives attention because of its subject matter, the story behind its creation can offer insight into what made In the Realm of the Senses unique from other controversial sex films.
In the Realm of the Senses tells the real-life story of Sada Abe, a maid who embarked on an affair with her boss Kichi. In 1936, Abe accidentally killed her lover by choking him during sex. A few days later she was discovered wandering the streets of Tokyo holding Kichi’s severed penis. The story caused a scandal in 1930s Japan and Ôshima was not the first to adapt this story to film, with Noboru Tanaka’s film A Woman Called Abe Sada coming out a year earlier, in 1975.
He may have been beaten to the punch, but Ôshima’s film had its genesis much earlier in 1972. After the Venice Film Festival, Ôshima stopped over in Paris where he encountered producer Anatole Dauman. With credits on classics like Marker’s La jetée, Resnais‘s Hiroshima mon amour, and a number of Godard films, Dauman specialised in auteur cinema. According to Ôshima, Dauman approached him and said “let’s collaborate on a film, a co-production. A porno. I’ll leave the content and the actual production to you. I’ll pay for it, that’s all.” Dauman denies having ever mentioned anything about porn, although it’s possible that it was on his mind when he approached Ôshima, as French censorship laws were being lifted during the 1970s. Regardless, Ôshima jumped at this chance for creative freedom. At this time, it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to finance his films in Japan, the most recent of which was the box-office flop Dear Summer Sister.
After deciding to go ahead with the Sada Abe story, Ôshima spent three years in pre-production. It’s important to note that during this time, sex films had become mass-market in Japan with the launch of Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno line in 1971. This in turn came about because of the increasing popularity of softcore sex films in the 1960s known as ‘pink films’. Most Roman Porno films were made with ruthless efficiency. Everything would be scripted, shot, and edited in just a matter of weeks. This is partly why Ôshima’s three-year period of planning and rewrites sets the film apart from other sex films of the time.
Another aspect where In the Realm of the Senses differs from other sex films of the time was in its casting choices. Although much of the supporting cast were veterans of adult film, his two leads were not. Kichi was played by Tatsuya Fuji, a film star who had acted in many of Nikkatsu’s action films during the ’60s. He had also played a part in the Gangster VIP series.
Sada Abe was played by Eiko Matsuda, who came from the world of avant-garde theatre. Apart from a role in one of the Stray Cat films, In the Realm of the Senses was Matsuda’s first, and sadly only, major film. While Fuji continues to act in films to this day, Matsuda was vilified by the media thanks to In the Realm of the Senses and never had much of a film career after it. She passed away in 2011.
By casting actors who didn’t have a background in adult films and taking his time in pre-production, Ôshima was seeking to make something more than another Roman Porno. In 1973 he wrote that such films “take sex as their subject matter and not as their theme. The themes of their most highly regarded films tend to be something like adolescent rebellion; sex is merely the seasoning.” On the other hand, despite wanting to break away from the perceived weaknesses of many adult films, Ôshima did not dismiss the genre outright. This can be seen in his collaboration with Kôji Wakamatsu. Wakamatsu was at this point a veteran of the Japanese adult arthouse film scene, with films like Violated Angels: controversial works that mixed sex with violence and politics in an attempt to comment on the radical political upheaval in Japan during the late ’60s. For In the Realm of the Senses, it simply made sense to hire Wakamatsu as a producer.
An unconventional risk-taker, Wakamatsu employed a young filmmaker called Yôichi Sai as an assistant director on the film. Sai was a Korean living in Japan, known as a zainichi. The place of Koreans in Japanese society was fraught with complexities due to the Japanese colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Sai’s previous work was a short documentary called Indictment: Report of Government Crimes Against Korean Residents in Japan. Zainichi were the targets of discrimination and were unable to carry a Japanese passport, even if they were born there. Ôshima himself was critical of Japan’s treatment of Korea and its people, as evidenced by his own short documentary Yunbogi’s Diary and the feature film Death by Hanging.
Sai’s place on the film is notable, because it signalled the emergence of new voices in both commercial and arthouse Japanese filmmaking. Directors like him would go on to examine discrimination of zainichi in the 1980s with films like All Under the Moon. Sai’s perspective as a zainichi was also needed for In the Realm of the Senses as Ôshima utilised the sex film as an attack on Japanese imperialism. Taking place in 1936, the same year as the February 26 Incident which saw the rise of militarism in Japan, Abe and Kichi’s actions take on a political dimension. By losing themselves in each other, they implicitly reject the destructive politics of their time.
The film goes beyond politics, exploring how far one can flee from the world to sensuality. The French title of the film, L’empire des signes (The Empire of Signs), is an explicit reference to Roland Barthes’s book about his visit to Japan. The semiologist posits that as a Westerner holding Western preconceptions, it’s impossible to access the inner reality of Japan. Rather, it is only through escaping into the realm of its signs and fantasy that one can get close to Japan. Similarly, as the film goes on Abe and Kichi lose themselves in a realm of sensation.
In order to offer potential access to that realm, Ôshima opted to use unsimulated sex scenes, which meant bypassing the Japanese censorship board, Eirin. Despite the rise in pink films, all of the sex in those films was simulated, and any onscreen flash of genitalia was generally masked through an optical effect known as bokashi – something unfit for Ôshima’s purposes. The unsimulated scenes for In the Realm were filmed at Daiei Studios in Kyoto, with the film stock imported from France – which meant that the controversial footage had to be shipped back to Europe to be processed.
In the Realm of the Senses was first released theatrically in France on 15 September 1976, with a Japanese release a month later. Barthes was among the first to see what would erupt into a scandal. Although the Japanese version was heavily censored, the behaviour of the couple was seen as an affront to Japanese society. Nevertheless, there were reports of Japanese tourists flocking to France to see the uncensored version of the film. Dauman claimed that within 17 months of its release around 80,000 of the 350,000 people who had seen it were Japanese. While In the Realm of the Senses enjoyed France’s newly lax laws regarding hardcore pornography, it faced trouble in other countries. A print of the film was confiscated by the police at the Berlin Film Festival, and in Britain the BBFC refused to rate the film until 1991. To this day, the film cannot be seen in its uncensored form in its native Japan.
Ôshima was eventually tried for obscenity in Japan – not for the film itself, but for a book of the film which included a number of stills. Ôshima defended himself by questioning the definition of obscenity, and who was truly responsible for the offending images. Was it him the director, or should the person who physically created the image be prosecuted? The trial lasted until 1982, with Ôshima ultimately being acquitted. While still on trial, he made another erotic film for Dauman called Empire of Passion, though this one was released to far less fanfare.
Thanks in part to this obscenity scandal, In the Realm of the Senses enjoys a certain degree of notoriety to this day. Perhaps fittingly, because of its French backing, the film stands alongside the likes of Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du mal as works of art that have been put on trial. However, it’s important to remember that for all of its depictions of sex, In the Realm of the Senses is an artistic classic from an intellectually ambitious director.