A relentlessly explicit biopic of sorts in which Japan’s proto-Lorena Bobbitt enjoys a few months of increasingly pioneering sex with her previously-married lover in their funky portal of passion; ultimately, she wears him down and hacks off a memento. To paraphrase a crack from Pauline Kael: light the incense, perverts. The teeming prurience of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses resulted in perhaps the director’s most high-profile U.S. release of his career, but Senses is hardly a cheap art-house hustle. Its sexuality is as carefully considered and methodical as Oshima’s rigid, symmetrical shots and blooming, balanced colors. Even though the thin plot is oversold in the first sentence of this review (know that the man and woman are called Kichizo and Sada and you’re good to go), the film charges so brazenly into test cases for audience tolerance that it very literally becomes an entirely different movie for each viewer.
There are overriding signposts, obviously, including the invasion of the private act into the eyes of the public, the rise of patriarchal militarism in pre-WWII Japan, the tenuous sexual stamina of overgrown boys, the homicidal nature of nurture, and humans’ recalcitrant capacity to home in on sources of pleasure and fill each of their orifices with life’s various nectars. And even those among us who have never attempted to pass a soft-boiled egg through our various equatorial lips would have to appreciate Oshima’s attempt to feel out the boundaries between the artistic and the pornographic representation of sex on screen. It’s not enough to rely on the litmus test of whether or not Oshima’s content is titillating, because lord knows that while I sat through the film’s 102 minutes without once shifting my instrument of attention, someone out there likely blew their load two minutes in.
Even in the wake of Shortbus’s auto-fellatio and musical rimjobs, Senses still retains the capacity to reduce audiences into paroxysms of humpy outrage. The film invites scorn not only because it depicts almost every sex act you could ever want to imagine taking place—God help us—between a man and a woman (right up to and including a woman inserting pieces of mushroom into her vagina and letting them marinate in her lady juices before serving them up to her man; because if he wants more, it must be true love), but also because it dares to couch the entire hedonistic-masochistic exercise as a cinematic cipher, an oozier version of what, deep down, happens in every relationship. Or as the Landmark slogan goes, the cunnilingus of this cinema is universal.
Up to now only available in the U.S. in a typically heinous Fox Lorber glorified coaster, In the Realm of the Senses looks like an entirely different film on Blu-ray. I'll admit that I previously wrote the film off as a grimy relic of the 1970s when I watched scenes from that previous DVD incarnation, ultimately shutting it off after half an hour. Now, gone are the spotty colors, the outrageous haloes of edge enhancement, and the improperly squeezed images. Criterion's picture is downright pornographic, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Skin tones appear totally natural even as the increasingly fabricated backdrops outside Kichizo and Sada's love nest practically pulsate with fiery reds and oranges. If previous video versions of the film truly left Oshima's artistic intentions in doubt, Criterion's restoration allows the movie to emerge as a serious piece of ass, err, art. As is becoming a pattern with Criterion Blu-rays, the visuals are so good you can barely be bothered to assess the uncompressed audio track. This one's a little bit more active, with plenty of moans and groans. Suffice it to say, you won't necessarily think the Kooze-Aid is spilling from your speakers, but you will probably have to turn it down a few times if you have thin walls.
You gotta love a commentary track for a feature-length movie in which nearly three-quarters of the running time is devoted to intercourse that begins: "I'm no expert in matters of sex." Film historian Tony Rayns may initially come off like a blind date warning, "Don't expect much," but he severely undersells his stamina. Not only does he provide a tidy summation of Senses's sporadic, censorship-ridden release history and a full portrait of Oshima's career, but he even explains the film's relation to and deviation from the Japanese pink film tradition. You probably won't ever feel like putting your hand down into his popcorn box, but he offers a solid listen, one that negates the need for any sort of critically minded featurette. Instead, Criterion includes about an hour's worth of interview footage. The newer footage features crew members as well as Tatsuya Fuji, who played the "He" of the film's two lovers. But personally, I was more fascinated by the five minutes of interview footage from 1976, in which Eiko Matsuda ("She") appears visibly ambivalent about the final results of her big break. (Her lack of new interview footage says all you need to know about how this tale ends.) There are also about six minutes' worth of deleted footage, none of which goes any further beyond the pale than what made the film. Finally, there's a booklet of liner notes from Donald Richie and an interview with Oshima.
I believe the children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Or, conversely, you could violently yank a four-year-old boy’s winkie and make him grow up begging to be choked unto orgasm. Your call.