IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (BFI Film Classics), by Joan Mellen. London: British Film Institute, 2004, 88 pp., with photographs. £8.99 (paper).

Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 film, “In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Korida),” is not only one of his most famous (or infamous) works but also one of his finest. Joan Mellen, in her excellent new monograph, has called it “the most brilliant dystopic vision ever to appear on film.” The quarter-century that has since elapsed has done nothing to dim this dazzling confrontation.

Sexual and political liberation are linked, and opposed, to a society destructive of these aims. The liberated lovers may fail (Oshima called his film a “reverse utopia”), but even though such freedom cannot be sustained in a politically corrosive social order, they still challenge society’s hegemony.

Oshima chose as a vehicle the “real-life” story of Sada Abe, a woman who in 1936, a time of growing repression, famously lived a full sexual life and was later imprisoned for murder. Seeking to augment pleasure, she had accidentally strangled her lover, then fled the scene of her crime. She could not resist, however, taking with her the means of her pleasure. She cut it off, put it in her obi, and it was still there when she was arrested.

Oshima’s film builds on this anecdote and, while respecting its outline, emphasizes the politico-sexual freedom achieved by the lovers. To both illustrate and emphasize this, Oshima would, as Mellen puts it, “perform an act of liberation parallel to that of his characters. He would film the sexual act itself.”

This is not usually done and had never been done in Japan. Though Abe’s story was otherwise twice filmed — once by Noboru Tanaka and once by Nobuhiko Obayashi — both attempts were conventional “pink” eroticism, used for its own sake. Oshima, however, used the tale “as a vehicle for exploring and demystifying Japanese culture and the Japanese character.” Pink became the blood-red that is the dominant color of this film.

During the making, Oshima stated that he was creating “a film of sexual organs and sexual intercourse,” which, of course — during those 30 days of filming at a closed set in the Kyoto Daiei studios — he was. He added, perhaps jokingly, that he was making “a pornographic film.” Many assumed that he was, and some are, even now, still confused into believing that this is what he did.

He didn’t — not if pornography’s aim is simple titillation that is merely intended as a lubricious aid. Oshima’s film is no such thing. It is as complex and rich an exploration of Japanese consciousness as were any of his earlier films such as the 1968 “Death by Hanging” and the 1971 “Ceremony.” As Mellen states, “prurience no less than the claims of puritanical morality are alien to this vision.”

Though the film invites no vicarious arousal from the spectator, this did not protect it from the agents of the society it was protesting. Though shot in Kyoto, the film had to be processed in France and all postproduction work was done in Paris. And though “In the Realm of the Senses” has long been recognized as a classic, a truly serious film, it has never been shown in its complete version in Japan — home of the very hypocrisy that Oshima criticizes. A Japan-released version obscured images to the extent that Oshima complained, maintaining that such censorship had rendered his images obscene — which, of course, it did. Several years ago an “uncut” version was re-released. This time the female images were unobscured but (such is the importance given to men in this society) the male images were not. So this important film remains locally unseen in its entirety. Censorship remains, although it is now called “minimum.”

Mellen’s monograph is essential to an intelligent viewing of this picture. It patiently exposes the charges that have been laid against it, and directs attention to the ideas that are being enacted. While in no way denying the enormous sensuousness of the film, it makes clear that the director’s aims are by no means lubricious.

Instead, “the audience is led to reflect on how and at what cost [the lovers] have achieved this perfect sexual expression and is not meant to join in.” Here “Oshima boldly connects a revolutionary sensibility with the Japanese past as a means of challenging the corruption of the present.”

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