One of the most controversial Japanese films ever made and banned in multiple countries upon release, In the Realm of the Senses is an erotic psych-drama about the increasingly heated affair between a maid and the owner of a hotel. Although often dismissed as a film dependent on graphic sex as a gimmick, what lies underneath is an intense story of love and madness that is powerful in it’s own right. Director Nagisa Oshima is the rare shock director with brains, skill, and passion to spare.
The two leads, Eiko Matsuda, as Sade the maid and Tatsuya Fuji as Ishida the hotel owner, are seriously strong and carry the film effortlessly. Sade is a volatile and totally maniacal character. She appears somewhat tragic at first, but her behavior becomes so erratic that you worry about what she could do next. Just when you think Sade reached peak craziness, she keeps escalating ever so further until the unforgettable finale has been reached. Matsuda gives a genuinely frightening performance
Ishida on the other hand is laidback, passive, and has no clue what he’s in for. He’s a lackadaisical type of guy who thinks that he can’t believe his own luck. Ishida always thinks he’s in charge until he comes to the disturbing realization that he really isn’t. And by then it’s too late. Fuji makes Ishida a likable bastard. He does a lot of awful things, including raping an elderly servant to death, but the guy carries himself with such a charm, that you begrudgingly side with him, even when he’s in the wrong.
The appeal is on the ever changing power play dynamic of their relationship. The entirety of their relationship is based around nonstop sexuality. Seriously, almost every other scene in the film is them banging. But what keeps this from being gimmicky, is how their actual relationship changes with each scene. One gets more emotionally involved. Then the other gets less emotionally involved. He gets more needy and she starts becoming more withdrawn. Then vice versa. People get involved. Some get pushed away. Jealousy creeps in. Then inevitable betrayal. And it only goes upwards from there. It’s one of the most fascinatingly destructive relationships in a film. With the whole deal being a middle aged guy finding a 20 something year old honey and getting more than he bargained for, this film feels like a primordial version of Audition. Only a version that is infinitely more graphic.
Graphic is a serious key word for this film. All of the sex is unsimulated, frequent, and skimps on no detail. Oshima created this film to shatter Japanese censors at the time, and any film where you can clearly detect “chafing” on the lead actor has most certainly done that. There is also some pretty serious S&M action that goes places that even jaded audiences would be surprised with. All of it is totally in your face and to such an extent that it manages to leave an otherwise well put together film in limbo. Realm is way too gynecological (and urological) for the viewers able to appreciate the quality of the film) and it’s too talky for the rain coat wearing crowd.
The finale of the film features something that will make all men in the audience squirm in their seats. It is so damn painful and realistic looking. Props to whoever had to research that, because it’s one of the all time most brutal looking when it comes to this particular act being in a film. Even Cannibal Holocaust couldn’t keep up with this film, and the Italians were notorious gorehounds.
If you are down for one aggressive, mind bending, occasionally terrifying erotic drama that is more likely to scare the crap out of eager dudes in the audience rather than arouse them, then this is your film. Japan has had tons of screwed up films over the years, and In the Realm of the Senses might be one of the roughest of the lot.
4 out of 5 golden cameras.