In the Realm of the Senses (French: L’Empire des sens} is a 1976 French-Japanese art film directed by Nagisa Oshima. It is a fictionalised and sexually explicit treatment of an incident from 1930s Japan, that of Sada Abe. It generated great controversy during its release; while intended for mainstream wide release, it contains scenes of unsimulated sexual activity between the actors (Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, among others).
In 1936 Tokyo, Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) is a former prostitute who now works as a maid in a hotel. The hotel's owner, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), molests her, and the two begin an intense affair that consists of sexual experiments and various self-indulgences. Ishida leaves his wife to pursue his affair with Sada. Sada becomes increasingly possessive and jealous of Ishida, and Ishida more eager to please her. Their mutual obsession escalates to the point where Ishida finds he is most excited by being strangled during lovemaking, and he is killed in this fashion. Sada then severs his penis and writes, "Sada Kichi the two of us forever," in blood on his chest.
- Eiko Matsuda as Sada Abe
- Tatsuya Fuji as Kichizō Ishida
- Aoi Nakajima as Toku
- Yasuko Matsui as Tagawa Inn manager
- Meika Seri as Matsuko
- Kanae Kobayashi as Old geisha Kikuryū
- Taiji Tonoyama as Old beggar
- Kyôji Kokonoe as Teacher Ōmiya
- Naomi Shiraishi as Geisha Yaeji
- Komikichi Hori as Mitsuwa Geisha
The film was released under In the Realm of the Senses in the U.S. and the U.K., and under L'Empire des sens (Empire of the Senses) in France. The French title was taken from Roland Barthes's book about Japan, L'Empire des signes (Empire of Signs, 1970).
Strict censorship laws in Japan would not have allowed the film to be made according to Oshima's vision. This obstruction was bypassed by officially listing the production as a French enterprise, and the undeveloped footage was shipped to France for processing and editing. At its première in Japan, the sexual activity was optically censored using reframing and blurring.
In the United States, the film was initially banned upon its première at the 1976 New York Film Festival, but later screened uncut, and a similar fate awaited the film when it was released in Germany. The film was not available on home video until 1990 although it was sometimes seen uncut in film clubs.
At the time of its initial screening at the 1976 London Film Festival, the British Board of Film Censors recommended it be shown under private cinema club conditions to avoid the need for heavy cuts to be made, but only after theObscene Publications Act had been extended to films (in 1977) to avoid potential legal problems. The film opened at the Gate Cinema Club in 1978. It was given an official countrywide cinema release in 1991, though the video release was delayed until 2000 when it was passed with an "18" certificate (suitable for adults only), leaving all of the adult sexual activity intact, but reframing a shot where Sada yanks the penis of a prepubescent boy after he misbehaves. The scene was zoomed in so just the reaction of the boy is shown. The cut was eventually waived in 2011. The film is available in uncut form in France, the United States (including the The Criterion Collection), the Netherlands, Belgiumand several other territories.
In Canada, when originally submitted to the provincial film boards in the 1970s, the film was rejected in all jurisdictions except Quebec. It was not until 1991 that individual provinces approved the film and gave it a certificate. However, in the Maritimes the film was rejected again as the policies followed in the 1970s were still enforced.
Due to its sexual themes and explicit scenes, the film was cause of great controversy in Portugal after it was aired on RTP. Some deemed it inappropriate even for the watershed slot, and some even appreciated its airing, like the priest who was Archbishop of Braga D. Eurico Dias Nogueira who said he 'had learned more in 10 minutes of the film than in his entire life'. The film was aired again in RTP2, but was almost not noticed.
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The film does not so much examine Abe's status as a folk hero in Japan ("Pink film" director Noboru Tanaka's film A Woman Called Sada Abe explores this theme more directly) as the power dynamics between Abe and Ishida. Many critics have written[by whom?] that the film is also an exploration of how eroticism in Japanese culture is often morbid or death-obsessed. Oshima was also criticized for using explicit sex to draw attention to the film, but the director has stated that the explicitness is an integral part of the movie's design. Set in the run-up to the Second World War, the film also expresses anti-militarism, as in the scene in which Ishida walks dazed in the opposite direction while a platoon of soldiers marches by, applauded by rows of children dutifully waving Japanese flags. Most of the action takes place inside Ishida's inn, but there are also some exterior sequences, including one on the turntable of a steam locomotive roundhouse.
Chaz Jankel of "Ian Dury and the Blockheads" fame, along with "Kenny Young" (Under The Boardwalk) made a pop song in 1980 called Ai No Corrida based on the movie's Japanese title. This song has since been recorded by many different artists, including Quincy Jones, whose version was a top 20 hit in the UK.