In “In The Realm of the Senses” a man with some wealth and influence takes up a sexual relationship with a woman and continues it through to its conceptualized peak – his death. They have sex, then more sex, then more sex, then she kills him, and it’s all still sex. He’s married to someone else and she has means apart from him, but while the rest of the world is doing its thing, they have sex.
Nagisa Oshima was already considered a leading theorititician working in independent Japanese cinema production when he made this film in 1976 and it was as much a text about his socio/political ideas as any of his written pieces. He strongly believed in the subjectivity of a person, especially of an author; a free individualism that, while being ingrained in the American condition, was only beginning to find a place in Japan. In the film sex and revolution are inseparably tied and create what he considered a positive energy. The sexual activity of the characters – the quest for ultimate physical pleasure battled against the military activities condoned by the “popular opinion”. Also, the characters exist in a very peculiar time and space that does not progress and is inescapable. Their entire story, save for only a few exceptions that only put their activities in context, takes place in their bedroom during the act of lovemaking.
At the time I saw this film I’d just seen a PBS documentary on the condition of children in a small white town in the US, on how conditions of “success” had led them to a profound emptiness with regard to love, family and identity. The program began probing the activities of the middle nineties when multiple outbreaks of syphilis were investigated and revealed middle school students were having after school orgies. It continued to show that, while few of the next generation were aware of the incidents, none of the underlying causes had been addresses and it ended, by chance, with a Columbine-style copy-cat shooting at the high school.
I feel like there is a nihilism reflected in films such as In The Realm of the Senses, an emptiness to the sex that is, whatever the director’s intention, failing following generations. I couldn’t help but think that if this art and cinema were fulfilling its promise, doing what it’s setting out to do, there wouldn’t be situations like those I described. I feel like Oshima had wondered too far down the path with this film, too far away from anything that does anybody any amount of good. From texts I have learned his agenda, but I think that symbolism was taken too far, and that this is an example of how changes demanded by the previous generation have not led to a “better world” and happier people, but have made everyone even more tired, confused and empty.