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Sex vs Violence: In the Realm of the Senses on Blu-ray

  As you may know, the nineteen-seventies were a boom time for pushing back boundaries on the big screen as censorship rules in many countries were loosened, but while almost anything bar animal cruelty or child abuse is permissible in most Western movies, it is not as if every production made there is apt to take advantage of this. In a motion picture landscape where the taboo-busting is relegated to the arthouse and not the mainstream, where the lure of the dollar is king and family films make the most money, extreme cinema is stuck in a ghetto for the twenty-first century.

Maybe that is as it should be and you should really have to seek this material out, rather than stumble across it unwarily, to be able to appreciate it, but in the seventies, there was a very different film landscape, where grindhouses and arthouses alike were churning out what, all these years later, could be regarded as the most offensive efforts imaginable. Where is the equivalent of Caligula now, where respectable stars mingled with porn performers in a three-hour orgy of sex and violence? Is the modern cinema simply too tasteful now to tackle such ambitions for the masses?

Or have the masses turned to the internet to sate their appetites for those elements? That's more likely for something you may well be reluctant to admit in polite company that you watched of your own free will, but imagine what it was like all those decades ago, where the only method of seeing works like Last Tango in Paris or Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom was to go out to a theatre and pay to watch. And what of one of the most controversial movies of this era, Japanese director Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, or Ai No Corrida as it was originally known in its native land?

Chaz Jankel of British New Wave band Ian Dury and the Blockheads chose to write a song with that Japanese title for his solo album, and Quincy Jones picked up on it to produce a cover that would be a hit in the early eighties. Can you imagine a hit song called The Brown Bunny, to choose a title from a film that attempted to generate the same heat as the Oshima film by including hardcore sex scenes with an established star in it? No, probably not, but In the Realm of the Senses had a well-known actor (in Japan) playing one of the lovers in the 1930s-set true story, Tatsuya Fuji, and he got very naked.

His co-star fared less well. She was Eiko Matsuda, a rising star of exploitation flicks from experimental theatre who in typical hypocrisy managed to be shunned by the world stage after leading this as the highly oversexed Sade Abe; she made a few pictures after this one, but they made little international impact and she retired to France, thoroughly sickened by her treatment by her countrymen and women and the press around the globe. Despite this being the seventies, where you would expect everyone to be letting it all hang out from much of the culture that stays around today, there remained a moral prudishness taking a stand.

The same thing happened to Maria Schneider when she made Last Tango in Paris: co-star Marlon Brando was given plaudits for baring his soul, she got endless jokes about butter for baring her body. In that era of porno chic, Linda Lovelace became a superstar for Deep Throat which was THE film to see for fashionable American couples throughout the decade, but by the end of that decade, she had turned into a vehement anti-pornography campaigner claiming she had been forced to make the film, often at gunpoint (to be fair, everyone else who worked on the film said that was not true, but the damage she intended had been well and truly done).

So for all In the Realm of the Senses' high ideals about depicting sexual obsession to the point of destruction, or that's what Oshima claimed at least, it appeared the world was not ready to debate its merits on those art terms, and probably is not now, either. Bring up the film now and it will be decried as typical seventies porn trying to pass itself off as intellectual or praised for its dedication to relating the true story of Sade, who ironically became a folk heroine of sorts after her act of violence on her lover way back in the thirties. There are assuredly scenes and shots here that do not appear to advance any plot or agenda other than prurience, then again it comes across as sincere in its examination of the dangerous impulses that take over the couple, a master and servant who spend most of the film either about to or having sex. Probably it's one of those films that you can only make up your own mind about, if you can take it. If not, don't shame those who can, as they support it as a political act going far beyond T&A.

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:

Restored high-definition digital transfer of the complete, uncensored version, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary from 2009 featuring film critic Tony Rayns
Interview from 2009 with actor Tatsuya Fuji
A 1976 interview with director Nagisa Oshima and actors Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, and a 2003 program featuring interviews with consulting producer Hayao Shibata, line producer Koji Wakamatsu, assistant director Yoichi Sai, and film distributor Yoko Asakura
Deleted footage and U.S. trailer
PLUS: An essay by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie and, for the Blu-ray edition, a reprinted interview with Oshima.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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