If you think of the Criterion Collection the way I do – as something of an ongoing film education – then In the Realm of the Senses is probably the first film by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima you’ll ever see. It’s certainly his most famous project, and in that respect, it’s a logical place to start. The Criterion guys have even made the introduction easier on audiences by featuring a new commentary by Japanese film scholar Donald Ritchie on both the DVD and Blu-ray editions that functions more as an overview of the director’s career than a direct essay on the film itself.
But as luck would have it, the release coincides with a traveling Oshima retrospective organized by James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario, which helps put the film in context. And a good thing, too, because In the Realm of the Senses is an extreme case – the story of an amour fou between a hotel owner and one of his maids that builds to strangulation, S&M and the most personal of keepsakes (perhaps the only art film capable of challenging Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist in the genital-mutilation department) – and I’d hate to imagine going through life thinking all of Oshima’s films were like that. My full write-up after the jump:
To a certain extent they are, in that the New Wave prankster made a career of provoking his audiences via shockingly sexual explorations of human behavior, though none of his other films takes things to quite this extreme. The curious thing about In the Realm of the Senses is that while it is his most explicit film (depicting not only hardcore, unsimulated penetration but also an unforgettable finale that lends an unexpected edge to the eroticism that precedes it), it also appears to be his most straightforward in terms of style, to the extent that the filmmaking itself can actually feel rather boring (speaking strictly in terms of how he moves the camera or blocks each scene).
Ritchie makes a point of this in his commentary, pointing out that Oshima seemed to reinvent himself with every film. The director varied shooting styles, formats (switching between b&w and color, sometimes within the same film) and even aspect ratios (one project might be 1.66:1, while the next would be in widescreen). For those curious enough to sample a second film, Criterion has also put out a restored version of Empire of Passion, Oshima’s follow-up to In the Realm of the Senses, made for the same French producer, Anatole Dauman, who helped introduce the West to the director’s cutting-edge erotic sensibilities.
Watching one after the other, it’s not immediately clear that the two films were directed by the same person. Where In the Realm of the Senses depicts a true story of extreme sexual intimacy (inspired by an actual case) with an almost detached attitude, Empire of Passion applies a more atmospheric, softcore approach to the familiar Japanese ghost story genre: A traveler (played by Senses star Tatsuya Fuji) strikes up an affair with a married woman, convincing her to poison her husband and dispose of his body, only to find they can’t be rid of him so easily.
But certain common themes certainly emerge, and as I ventured deeper into Oshima’s oeuvre (seeing another half dozen of his films, thanks to retrospectives hosted at the American Cinematheque and Los Angeles County Museum of Art), I came to find that one after another returns to the issues of brutal crime, liberated sexual relations and rape. And digging into Oshima online, I find Audie Bock’s Japanese Film Directors: “in every Oshima film at least one murder, rape, theft or blackmail incident can be found, and often the whole of the film is constructed around the chronic repetition of such a crime.” Maybe not every Oshima film, though the generalization certainly applied to most of the ones I saw.
In Death by Hanging, the director weaves an absurdist Dr. Strangelove-style satire around a police interrogation in which cops go to great lengths to force a fresh confession from a convicted rapist after he survives his execution. Violence at Noon concerns a serial rapist whose latest victim refuses to reveal his identity to the police, a decision whose explanation lies in her personal connection to the perpetrator. In Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, a mock rape between two revolutionary young lovers turns real when they encounter a gang of street thugs. Teens eager to join a gang interrupt two young lovers smooching by the water, killing the guy before raping his girlfriend. And so on.
As a narrative device, rape clearly functions differently in Japanese culture than the West (Kurosawa’s great Rashomon deals with it as well, to name just one example), and Oshima’s approach radically diverges in each film, but his persistent preoccupation with the subject is strong enough to raise eyebrows (just as one begins to question Todd Solondz’s personal interest in pedophilia after the issue surfaces in all his movies). It came as an enormous personal relief, then, to stumble upon Boy, an exception that is every bit as audacious as Oshima’s other work and yet focused on a completely different arena. (If I had any sway with the Criterion staff, this is the film of his I’d request on DVD, not that I object to Oshima’s other fascinations, but because he handles this new material so well. With any luck, Criterion will assemble a few more of his restored films into one of their Eclipse sets.)
In Boy, a 10-year-old youth and his parents travel around the country scamming hapless drivers by pushing the kid in front of moving cars and conning them into covering his hospital bills. It’s a wonderfully twisted setup from which to explore how a boy raised under such conditions, where abuse is a way of life, is spared a degree of that pain simply because he knows no alternative. In that sense, Boy reminds me of Nobel winner Imre Kertesz’s semi-autobiographical novel Fateless, which looked back on the harrowing teen years spent in a Nazi concentration camp, but still managed to find windows of genuine joy amid the hardship.
Just as he stripped the sexuality in his other films of conventional notions of romance, Oshima demonstrates a refreshingly unsentimental attitude toward childhood here, which makes Boy‘s deep, underlying tragedy all the more effective. The surface emotion is easy enough to follow, but the subtext runs deep (one scene in particular, where the boy builds an effigy out of snow and then tears it down, serves as a wonderful metaphor for his mental transformation).
As a filmmaker, Oshima represents the Japanese analog for the jumpy, avant-garde feel of early Goddard, but Boy feels more lyrical than his other work, offering foreigners an unlikely yet effective tour of his home country alongside its sober coming-of-age scenario. So, while I’m glad to have been initiated into to Oshima through In the Realm of the Senses (even if it means never being able to rid my mind of its final emasculating image), I don’t necessarily consider it a must-see in the way that I do Boy. It’ll take some detective work or luck to track it down (last I heard, the entire Oshima retrospective was headed to Venice), but should the opportunity ever present itself, seize the chance to see Oshima’s rare, rape-free masterpiece.