In the Realm of the Senses (Blu-ray)
Directed by Nagisa Oshima
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:11080pAVC codec
Running Time: 102 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: April 28, 2009
Review Date: April 21, 2009
Director Nagisa Oshima encountered controversy with one of his very first films with him at the helm, 1960’s Night and Fog in Japan, and it certainly stayed by his side with the release of In the Realm of the Senses, a film that to this day hasn’t been seen uncut or uncensored in Japan. Based on a true story of an event that happened in 1936, In the Realm of the Senses is often accused of being pornographic. That point is arguable (the director certainly thought it was), but its graphic, matter-of-fact exposé on one woman’s insatiable desire for her lover pulls no sexual punches. It’s an at times haunting biographical psychodrama, but it’s often hard to endure so psychologically (not to mention realistically) naked are its two characters. The feelings are viscerally raw and often hard to identify with, but there’s no denying the real art which has gone into bringing this story to the screen.
Recently hired servant Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) becomes fixated on her married boss Kichizo (Tatsuya Fugi), a hotelkeeper in a seemingly happy relationship with his wife. Soon, however, her youth and obsessive sexual need for Kichi forces him to leave his wife and go off with Sada whose enthusiastic passion for him grows so extreme over time that simple lovemaking no longer suffices. The couple then finds necessary innumerable sex games fringing into sadomasochism, all in an attempt to satisfy the unquenchable thirst Sada has for Kichi.
Though there are other characters in the movie, director Oshima’s camera spends a vast majority of the film’s running time exploring every inch of the bodies of his two leading players. The sex scenes are in-your-face real and have been staged and shot in a variety of long, medium, and close shots that, by the end, have become somewhat repetitive and definitely exhausting. Also a little too overdone are the foreshadowings of the violence to come that the director has sprinkled throughout the movie. How many scissors, knives, and razors (or how much blood either in real life or in Sada’s many erotic fantasies) do we need to see to understand the coming symbolic castration at the moment when Sada’s overwhelming passion for Kischi can no longer be satiated? Ironically, the director’s final fantasy for Sada is one of the film’s most startling and revelatory visual moments, and it doesn‘t involve anything violent or anyone‘s bodily fluids.
Words can’t express enough admiration for Tatsuya Fugi and especially Eiko Matsuda’s brave performances as this cosmically bound-but-doomed couple. Neither seem to have the slightest hang-ups about the vast array of sex acts they’re asked to perform, either with themselves or with other cast members (the sex acts were not simulated but are the real thing), and that kind of commitment to one’s art is rare, especially in light of In the Realm of the Senses being Eiko Matsuda’s first film. She is simply astounding.
The film’s 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered in 1080p using the AVC codec. This is a high definition transfer of sensational quality. Color is very rich, and the image is very sharp but naturally so without bothersome edge enhancement, and it features especially realistic flesh tones that are among the most natural ever captured on a high definition disc. Colors in Sada’s erotic fantasies sometimes verge on blooming, especially the color red, but this seems to have been a stylistic choice of the director and not a fault of the transfer. There are no digital artifacts, surprising for a film more than thirty years old. The white subtitles are solid and very easy to read. The film has been divided into 24 chapters.
The film’s PCM 1.0 (1.5 Mbps) track is fairly typical for its era. There is some flutter to be heard off and on during the film’s quieter moments, and some of the music played on instruments live on the set during filming occasionally has a slightly shrill timbre that’s momentarily off-putting. Otherwise, it’s a fine mono track.
The disc contains an excellent audio commentary by film critic Tony Rayns. Not deigning to speak about the nature of the sex acts on display in the movie, he fills the running time with far more interesting stories about the director’s career and some of the political implications that the film conveyed both at the time of its making and even today. There are occasional silent moments, but the commentary is on the whole a thorough examination of the film and its maker.
Three interviews are included with the set and all are presented in 1080i. A 1976 interview with the director and his two stars (though Fugi never gets a chance to speak) was filmed in Brussels for television broadcast there and runs 5 ½ minutes. A 2008 interview with Tatsuya Fugi runs 17 ¼ minutes. He describes how he got the role and relates some production stories with fondness for the film and the director. “Recalling the Film” finds four key behind-the-scenes personnel discussing the curious story behind the making of the movie, the ease in casting the leading female role and the difficulty in finding the principal male role’s performer, and the legendary censorship troubles the film has faced. This feature filmed in 2003 runs 38 ¾ minutes.
Six deleted scenes from the movie are presented within the framework of the sequences from which they were removed. The deleted footage is presented in color while the parts of the scene which remained in the finished film are in black and white. This 12 ¼ minute sequence is presented in 1080p.
A less than pristine theatrical trailer runs 2 ½ minutes in 1080p.
An enclosed 38-page booklet contains a chapter listing, cast and crew lists, a selection of vivid color stills, a background essay on the director and the film by Japanese film expert Donald Ritchie, and excerpts from an interview by director Nagisa Oshima that appeared in the Japanese magazine Image Forum.
The Criterion Blu-rays are now including a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark a specific place for later reference.
Not for all tastes but no more pornographic than Last Tango in Paris was (though perhaps more obviously graphic while dealing with somewhat similar themes of sexual obsession) In the Realm of the Senses comes to the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray in one of the most beautiful high definition transfers currently available. It isn’t a film I’d be eager to revisit soon, but others may find it erotically hypnotic. For them, this is a set that will be most welcome.