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.