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Sense & Sensuality

Last Exit to Ecstasy: Eiko Matsuda and Tatsuya Fuji pursue pain and passion in a sensual "Realm."

The uncut 'In the Realm of the Senses' is still on film's cutting edge

By Richard von Busack

Strangely enough, the still-controversial 1976 Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses actually looks a little more radical in its 20th-anniversary re-release than it did the first time around. Cinema is much more petrified now than it was in the mid-1970s, and In the Realm of the Senses tells its story free from fear of what the kids might see.

The plot is based on a true incident that happened before WWII in Japan. As told by director Nagisa Oshima, the story unfolds at a country inn. A man and a woman have escaped there from her life as a whore and his life as a pimp. Discovering in each other the mirror of their most boundless lusts, they come to a sort of unspoken pact to fuck to death.

In the end, the woman, Sada, survives, keeping with her the severed part of her dead lover that she liked the most, wrapped in a handkerchief. (In real life, Sada became something of a media heroine for the purity of her love and desire.)

As Sada, Eiko Matsuda never seems to acknowledge a boundary between herself and her character, and we're never certain whether we're watching "actors" or "lovers." Tatsuya Fuji plays her lover, Kichizo, who follows her into discovering one new sensation after another; he is the only other person in her universe, really, suggesting and guiding her as well as being led. The film is not so much about a man trying to devour a woman or vice versa; the two are really trying to consume themselves. A partnership so equal is unique in movies about sex.

Little of the outside world is allowed into their room. We see soldiers drilling on some of Sada's excursions--one of a few reminders, here and there, that the more respectable citizens were about to have themselves an orgy of their own.

In the Realm of the Senses comes from the tradition of erotic Japanese prints, the shunga, in which the faces are stylized, but the organs are delineated with almost topographical care. As Angela Carter wrote, the Japanese "look upon each other's exposed genitalia with a tender readiness that still perturbs the West."

Easily perturbed Westerners should be warned. There is the explicitness of hard-core pornography in this uncut version of the film, which was originally released here with the more extreme images excised.

Certainly, an audience fresh out of the beautifully stylized reveries of love and death in Leaving Las Vegas--complete with the explicit finale ("Look how hard you made me, baby")--might be ready for Oshima. Perfect lust and perfect love look exactly alike on screen, and in between the love-making, In the Realm of the Senses presents us with moments as strangely graceful as Leaving Las Vegas does. (I'm especially fond of an exchange between Sada and Kichizo. Slightly amused by her ardor, he asks, "Can't you wait?" She responds, almost desperately, "That's all I ever do.")

The 20-year-old film is among other things, a guide on how to make a movie about sex that avoids both the cheat that is soft-core pornography and the visit to the urologist's clinic that is hard-core. Alas, no filmmakers have followed the lead of In the Realm of the Senses; the film exists, beautifully photographed, full of remarkable integrity--and almost alone.

I'm not even sure I'd recommend it to people under 30, let alone allow anyone under 18 see it. When I was young, and I saw even a censored version of the film, I was repelled; my vision of sex was perhaps more informed by Cat Stevens, and it was all about nice, sweet gentle things that you wanted to do to one another.

An older person will have endured a few broken-down love affairs, and long periods of loneliness unredeemed by the bruised sweetness loneliness has for adolescents. At that younger age, you have at least the comfort that it's the world's fault that you're alone. Later, you know better. Older viewers will have realized that death is not this cool thing that happens to other people but something awful that will happen to them presently. Sex becomes darker, and all the more precious, because of this insight. "In the ecstasy of love," notes Oshima, "the cry is 'I'm dying.' " But as one becomes older, the cry becomes "Kill me now."

In the Realm of the Senses (1976; NC-17; 105 min.), directed and written by Nagisa Oshima, photographed Hideo Ito and starring Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda.

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From the Mar. 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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