For all its stretching of credibility, Nagisa Oshima's controversial 1976 film Ai No Corrida aka In The Realm of The Senses has its roots in a true-life incident from 1930's Japan, where a woman Sada Abe was found wandering about with the severed genitals of her lover Kichiza Ishida, who had been fatally asphyxiated, her name carved into his arm and the bedsheets smeared with a bloody message "Sada and Kichi, now together". Oshima takes the framework of that bizarre incident and casts Sada and Kichiza as the lead characters in this tale of sexual obsession.
Sada, who has been a prostitute at some earlier point in her life, takes up employment as a help in the inn run by Kichiza and his wife. Kichiza is almost immediately attracted to her, as she to him, and they begin an intimate liaison. It soon reaches a point where Kichiza moves her to another house and they have a mock marriage ceremony. This marks the commencement of a life dedicated to the exchange of sexual pleasures. Seemingly free of any worries of unwanted pregnancy or venereal infection, the couple seem to spend all their waking hours having sex. Sada, who resumes her occupation as sex worker to support them, forbids Kichiza from ever going back to his wife or having sexual intercourse with her, although she doesn't seem to mind if he calls geishas over, and in some instances, insists that he have sex with other women, including a 68-year old geisha. The general inference seems to be that if he has sex with another woman it should be with someone with whom he has no emotional connection with or sexual desire for.
In time, Sada grows increasingly obsessed with Kichi-san's sexual apparatus, even threatening to cut it off so it will always remain with her. Her desperation to always be with him and ensure his sexual fidelity puts him under virtual house arrest and their carnal fetish grows more extreme with the inclusion of strangulation. The eventual climax (pun unintended) of this volatile communion mixes desire, pain, love and death in an inseparable splatter.
That ends my humble interpretation of the film's story but how does it actually stand? I will say this: Ai No Corrida is is not a film designed to appeal to a wide audience. Quite the opposite, in fact, because the film requires an audience to conform to certain patterns for them to find any appeal in it. Some of these I'll try to outline as below:
- This is not a film to be watched with family or friends. Out of 100 odd minutes (or longer depending on what cut you see), there are probably some 3 minutes of footage that do not have some kind of sexual activity going on...and that includes the credit sequences.
- You have to be comfortable with hardcore sex scenes, non-gym toned, non-surgery enhanced figures and proudly unshaven crotches.
- You need to take the sexual obsession part seriously. If you're not sold on that, the movie is just an endless parade of sex acts, occasionally hilarious, occasionally extreme. You need to give the movie a bit of running time to build on the obsession theme. In my view, the director fumbles early on, and the initial sexual interactions between Sada and Kichiza are emotionally unconvincing, appearing to be structured solely for the outre factor.
You could adhere to all the above and still find the film to be just a boring snob version of a porn film. I will not attempt to change your mind (the same courtesy I expect from anyone with a contrary opinion). I am only expressing my point of view here.
What to me saves this film from falling in the exotic porn category is the way Oshima has developed the situations and the way he has directed the actors. It could not have been easy finding competent actors that are also willing to perform explicit onscreen sex. But in Eiko Matsuda (who appears to have had a very short and otherwise wholly unremarkable film career) and Tatsuya Fuji he finds a pair that delivers the goods. Though not particularly blessed with beauty, Eiko has her charms, especially when she gives us her lovely dimpled smile, and more importantly she brings to the role an emotional weight that makes Sada a credible character, not merely a plot device on which to hang assorted pornographic scenes. Tatsuya Fuji is also charming and he has a genuine chemistry with his co-star that keeps the sex scenes from feeling mechanical. It also makes the final consummation of their relationship more acceptable, less contrived.
It is to me also obvious that Oshima is as interested in the faces and sexual emotions of his characters as he is in depicting their sexual organs, sufficiently differentiating his film from a run-of-the-mill porn industry product. His portrayal of obsession is refreshing in that it is two-way, and not the more standard theme of one character entrapping the other in a menacing way. ANC is not all roses though, and there are moments when Oshima seems insistent about depicting a little of every known sexual fetish. But on the whole I find this film an interesting (and re-watchable) exploration of the theme of sexual obsession and the extremes to which it can reach. Your mileage may vary....a lot.