Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses) is well known as one of the most sexually explicit art films ever made, but don’t confuse it for an arty porn film. Yes, there is a lot of (real) shagging, but it’s not exactly chasing thrills. After all, the male lead has his penis chopped off by the end.
Based on true events that took place in 1936 in Japan, the film tells of the passionate, obsessive relationship between a hotel maid, Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), and the owner of the hotel where she works, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji). Sada is treated badly by her fellow workers because she used to work as a prostitute, but when she meets Kichizo all her sorrows melt away and the couple barely leave their bedrooms for the rest of their time together and the rest of the movie. They survive on sake, fags and shagging.
The plot is fairly simple, subtle even, but heads into deep emotional territory. Generally love stories need obstacles before the couples can finally find happiness together, but not much can separate the lovers in Ai No Corrida. Both Sada and Kichizo are married, but we never see Sada’s husband and Kichizo’s wife doesn’t stand a chance against the tidal wave of her husband’s passion for her rival. So total is their connection that Sada’s short visit to her sugar daddy – and a short separation of the lovers – becomes a dramatic high point, even though she returns quickly.
Soon after they first meet, Kichiko says of his new lover, “you’re an unusual woman.” He’s not wrong, she certainly seems unusually forward for the repressed times they live in. If Sada is hopelessly hung up on her man, his cheeky smirk is misleading. Kichiko is equally obsessed. Nothing gets in their way: maids deliver sake while the couple merrily carry on. They can’t even walk down the street without stopping for a quickie. You have to admire them, like them even, for their exultant fervour.
With all this sex, why is the film not porn? The true story that Ai No Corrida is based on occurred over six days rather than half a year as in the film. By extending the timeframe, the director, Nagisa Ôshima deepens the drama. Porn is meant to occur in real time, but here the constant screwing for months on end tells a powerful story in itself. These two are lost. Yes, the sex is unsimulated – the film had to be shot secretly in Japan and then processed in more liberal Paris – but, while the camera is not shy of nudity, it is not obsessed with their nakedness either.
Ôshima and his cast create characters who if not entirely likeable, are at least believable. Their obsession is intriguing – where will it lead? Despite the odd squabble, Sada and Kichiko are sucked inexorably onwards. People start to remark about their smell. Passion turns into obsession. What was pleasurable becomes frightening. The film takes on a sinister tone.
The real Sada was probably raped as a teenager, but Ôshima however does not delve far into the lovers’ backgrounds, nor those of any other character. By 1936 Japan was building up to the Second World War, there had been an attempted coup in February and the following year the country invaded China. At one stage Kichiko is shown walking down a street while troops march by in the opposite direction. The message is clear: the Empire of Japan is rejected for the realm of the senses.
The story of Sada Abe and Kichiko Ishida is legendary in Japan. There have been three other films and a host of books written about them. They stand as mythic lovers, like the medieval Abelard and Heloise or Persian Layla and Majnun, whose passions met with similarly drastic results. The miracle of Ôshima’s film is that he manages to create dramatic tension even though the characters never get separated by society.
Kichiko’s death is usually explained as an accident, but Ôshima hints at something else. The couple live in as complete a union as it must be possible to achieve, but they are still not satisfied. Using very few words, we are shown two people who cannot be entirely together as long as they maintain their individuality. It is certain that no lovers can completely become one, so in this case one of them must go, to ensure there is finally only one. In spelling out this dreadful logic with such care, Ôshima creates a masterwork of existentialist horror.
– Recalling the Film: 2003 Program featuring interviews with consulting producer Hayao Shibata, line producer Koji Wakamatsu, assistant disrector Yoichi Sai and distributer Yoko Asakur
– Panel discussion at Birkbeck College with Japanese film scholars
– Once Upon a Time: In the Realm of the Sense
– Deleted scenes
Plus, the Blu-Ray comes with a booklet from of scholarly articles and book excerpt
Read our review of Ai No Borei (Empire of Passion) Ôshima’s companion film.
Win a copy of In the Realm of the Senses in our Nagisa Ôshima competition.