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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Love and Death
by Donald Levit

Start time pushed back to discourage young curiosity seekers, In the Realm of the Senses/Ai no Korida/L’Empire des Sens aka Empire of the Senses no longer attracted old ones either. Now one of twenty-two offerings comprising Japan Society’s “twisted, obsessive, heart-blazing” Love Will Tear Us Apart program, three years after Last Tango in Paris, Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 film encountered problems with censors in Germany, Israel, the UK and the US, where its seizure prevented an anticipated New York Film Festival screening. Japan had, and still has, strict public decency laws, necessitating that stock be shipped to France for development and embroiling his country’s New Wave director in years of legal battles for publishing his script.

More explicit in more frames than Bertolucci’s and infinitely superior to Lyne’s (admittedly cut) Nine ½ Weeks, the film is based on a real case of forty years before whose two figures became something of heroes in the nation then militaristic and monolithic.

Indeed, there are those who insist that political statement is behind the whole. That is so but not in the sense they mean: instead, it is sexual politics that is one root, for while the entire relationship is rendered in unsimulated hard-core physical images the man is uniquely as fully displayed as the woman. Male vulnerability in full-frontal nakedness is still taboo, and Oshima objected to what he felt the true obscenity of the “uncut” showing in Japan, a quarter-century afterwards, in which only the female was seen intimately undressed.

Merely three years after IRoS, Tatsumi Kumashiro could be nominated for domestic awards with A Woman with Red Hair, “roman[tic]-porno” which obeyed the code by revealing only female nudity while dealing non-tragically with rape, abandonment of husband and child, unwed motherhood, voyeurism, shared sex partners and nymphomania.

Traced in blood, “Sada and Kichi, just two of us together” comes from the actual 1936 event and rounds out a film and relationship moving toward closure not unrelated to the recent unfortunate end of David Carradine. Male metaphysical poets linked orgasm with death, and some male artists have depicted female sexual consummation as vampirism, so this woman’s ultimate possession of this man is nothing new

The hundred-two minutes is hermetic, as the two lovers seal themselves off within their own sexual frenzy that even shuts out necessary nourishment. Trailing her work as a prostitute, Sada or Osada Abe (newcomer Eiko Matsuda) has trouble swallowing taunts in her waitressing job at an inn which also serves and services patrons upstairs. A philanderer with a wife accustomed to his absences, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji, already established and hesitant about the rôle) comes to the bar on his habitual rounds, and the two click immediately, to move deeper into non-stop sexual gratification, aspects of which some viewers will feel perverse.

Though the film is not static, virtually the whole world becomes a second-inn room, where the couple keep a standing love nest and get “married.” Other people exist only on the periphery, as ignored voyeurs sometimes invited into the lovers’ couplings, from curious virgins to a sixty-eight-year-old samisen instrumentalist. Sada supports their otherwise austere lifestyle by freelancing with a school-principal customer (Kyôji Kokonoe), and Kichi makes occasional perfunctory trips home, but they are alive only when together in a vortex of teasing talk and sex in which the female is equally the alpha and there is a bare suggestion when he dons her kimono.

So removed are they that a few late frames of flag-waving at marching Imperial troops is an excrescence rather than a basis for delusions of political relevance. And a scene in which Sada strums for two naked children and roughly grabs the boy’s genitals -- altered for 1989 UK release -- is a puzzle left dangling.

One way or another sex figures in most Oshima works. This particular consideration of mutual possession which approaches and then transcends death is well-paced and, within story possibilities, -acted as well. If intended as a test of obscenity laws, the tale of transgressive obsession did its work then -- and still does, for no multiplex would dare run it today.

(An Argos Films production; not rated by MPAA.)

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