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IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tatsuya Fuji, Eiko Matsuda
Director:  Nagisa Oshima
Audio:  LPCM Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  102 Minutes
Release Date:  April 28, 2009

“You’re an unusual woman.”

Film **

Once upon a time, the term “art house film” was a subversive way of letting filmgoers know they were in for a night of adult entertainment.  These pictures weren’t seen at family multiplexes, they were rarely if ever advertised in local newspapers, and they earned a reputation more for their notoriety than any substance or artistic merit they might have carried…sometimes, deservedly so.

Give credit to Criterion, who has brought us some of the most important films in world history…they don’t judge.  Some of their titles have been ones that pushed the envelopes in their day, and even to this day.  Movies like Salo or I Am Curious were unflinching explorations of sexuality in all forms.  Now comes Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses.

This is a pornographic movie.  I use that term not to be condemning nor dismissive; it is merely a statement of fact.  Like the judge who was asked to define pornography and responded by “I know it when I see it”, that is exactly the place I’m coming from.

This 1976 film is based on the real Japanese case of Sada Abe (Matsuda), a woman of pre-war Japan who earned infamy by cutting off the genitalia of her lover to keep with her always.  How much of the movie is grounded in reality, I cannot say.  I do know that in the 70s especially, Japan had a broad underground sex movie market, and for Oshima, this French-financed film was a chance to bring it into the light.

Sada is a servant in an inn owned by Kichizo (Fuji) and his wife, where guests are serviced by attentive geishas and sometimes by more than their music and song.  There is an instant attraction between Kichizo and Sada, and soon, copious amounts of sexual activity ensues, which eventually leads to obsession, insatiability, and the inability of the couple to do anything but stay in their room and find new ways of expressing their physicality.  I wish I could describe some of the details, lest you think I exaggerate, but there’s nothing these two do in the movie that I could successfully translate into printed material suitable for all ages. 

Let’s just say, nothing is left to the imagination…not what happens before, during or after.  Every time you think the film has gone as far as it can, Oshima surprises with a rather twisted imagination and delivers an extra shock or two.  I’m not squeamish by nature, but I found I often had to reach for the cover box to remind myself I was watching a product from Criterion.

In the end, the story concludes much as we are told it did in real life.  And as a viewer, I felt exhausted and uncomfortable and wondering what it was all about.  The supplements informed me that this was meant to be Oshima’s left-wing take on the rising imperial and industrialist establishment in Japan heading into the second World War.  If he had a serious political and social statement he wanted to make, I respectfully submit that it got a little lost amongst all of the sex.

Seriously, I cannot warn you enough…if you pick up this movie, you REALLY need to understand what you’re getting into.  This is more graphic, more consistently unapologetic and yes, more pornographic than most movies you’d find behind the curtains in the back room of a video store.  I owe it to you to be perfectly frank; to use a code word like ‘art house film’ might seriously give the wrong impression.

Video ***1/2

This is a beautiful looking Blu-ray presentation from Criterion…in fact, check the trailer and compare it to the film, and you’ll appreciate the effort that went into this high definition transfer.  Colors are vivid and pure throughout, and the level of detail in the mostly indoor settings is remarkable.  Occasionally, images seem just a tad darker than what I’d consider normal, but that is a very minimal issue.

Audio **1/2

Most of the movie is dialogue-oriented, although some of the ‘dialogue’ easily translates into all languages, if you catch my meaning.  Not a lot of dynamic range is needed or employed, but the uncompressed mono soundtrack sounds clean and well-balanced.

Features ***1/2

There is an informative and rather dry commentary track from critic Tony Rayns, who admits he’s hardly a sex expert and thus avoids discussing what’s staring him in the face as much as possible.  There is a vintage interview with Oshima and his two actors, and a new one with actor Tatsuya Fuji, plus a look back at the film by some of the crew members.

There is an examination of some of the deleted footage in context (the deleted footage is highlighted in color) and a US Trailer proclaiming the film “Rated R”…this is NOT an R rated movie.  Rounding out is a good and extensive booklet for the film.

Summary:

Criterion never sits in judgment; they simply deliver the goods and let fans respond to them as they will.  Even if you know some of their riskier releases from the past, I dare say nothing will prepare you for the graphic nature of In the Realm of the Senses.  Proceed accordingly.

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