Synopsis: Still censored in its own country, In The Realm Of The Senses (Ai no corrida), by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, remains one of the most controversial films of all time. A graphic portrayal of insatiable sexual desire, Oshima’s film, set in 1936 and based on a true incident, depicts a man and a woman (Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda) consumed by a transcendent, destructive love while living in an era of ever escalating imperialism and governmental control. Less a work of pornography than of politics, In The Realm Of The Senses is a brave, taboo-breaking milestone.
Ai no Korīda 9.25
eyelights: Eiko Matsuda. Tatsuya Fuji. the intense, passionate dynamic between the two characters.
eyesores: the BDSM aspect of the story.
‘Ai no Korīda’ is one of my all-time favourite motion pictures. I first saw it at a local art house cinema in the mid-’90s, during a time when I first started exploring independent and international film. The joy of this cinema was that they held double features and, with a yearly membership, admission was quite affordable. Considering that one got two films for that minimal price, experimenting was no huge gamble.
I have no idea which film this was paired with, but I still remember how stunned I was by ‘Ai no Korīda’: I had no idea that you could show a film this explicit in a regular cinema; it almost felt like I should be in a seedy adult cinema. Except that ‘Ai no Korīda’ wasn’t seedy; it was actually sexy, walking the fine line between erotica and pornography. When I looked around, I found that the crowd wasn’t sleazy either.
And you could feel the heat in the room. It was palpable. I’ve never felt anything like it before and since.
Thus I understood, perhaps for the first time, that sex isn’t necessary dirty and that dirty isn’t necessarily sexy; that erotica is all based on stimulating the largest erogenous zone: the brain. Admittedly, I had an awareness of this principle already -it’s not like I was sheltered. But this was the first time that it really sunk in, that I became aware of where the dividing line was drawn and how close one could get to it without crossing it.
It’s also the first time that I saw an interpretation of the level of passion I longed for in my own personal life. Only a few years prior, I had discovered Jolan Chang’s life-changing book, “The Tao of Love and Sex”. It had fundamentally altered the way that I perceived sexuality as a whole, not just my own. It changed everything. But, aside from that book, I couldn’t find a reflection of what I longed for anywhere until I saw ‘Ai no Korīda’. Forget the way over-rated ‘9½ Weeks’!
Nagisha Oshima’s ‘Ai no Korīda’ is based on the story of Japanese folk hero Sada Abe, who was found guilty of murdering her lover in 1936. What made her story such a sensation at the time was that she had erotically asphyxiated her lover and then was found carrying his genitalia wrapped in newspaper. The police record of the ensuing interrogation and confession was published and became a national bestseller.
The Japanese have had a fascination with her ever since and no less than four movies, including ‘Jitsuroku Abe Sada‘ and ‘Sada’ have been made about her – not accounting for all the other media in which she is featured (it is claimed that countless erotic novels were written about her in ensuing years). She was also interviewed for ‘Meiji Taisho Showa Ryoki Onna Hanzaishi’, a Japanese documentary on women criminals.
Truth be told, I haven’t ever really read up on the facts surrounding the case of Sada Abe. For some reason, I’m not so much interested in her as an actual person, but as a fictional one – as the one that I know in ‘Ai no Korīda’. It’s the fantasy that is alluring, not the reality. So I’ve picked up many versions of the film on DVD and blu-ray, have sought out other versions of the same story, have watched interviews with the cast and crew, but haven’t explored the true story.
What I love about ‘Ai no Korīda’, aside for its representation of ultimate romantic and sexual devotion, is how real it feels to me: When I watch Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, they look a real couple to me, completely immersed in each other on an emotional, physical and even spiritual level; there is no doubt in my mind that this is happening for real, that this is unrehearsed, even though the fact is that they are acting and it was was all scripted and planned.
It’s obviously not just the ample unsimulated sex that makes it so. I’ve seen my fair share of motion pictures that show their actors perform actual sex on screen, but I’ve found that they usually only confirm that the sex is actually taking place, but don’t set an erotic mood or convince us that the characters really are into each other. In fact, it can often be a crutch for lesser motion pictures, films that aren’t able to deliver the naked emotion, to actually bare its characters.
‘Ai no Korīda’ succeeds at being convincing on all levels: it presents a true-to-life story based in fact, it serves up graphic sex, and wraps it all up in a rapturous intensity that steams up the screen. ‘Korīda’ is sustained by the most heated cinematic pairings that I’ve ever seen – to the extent that I can’t even fathom the actors not becoming entangled for real, being emotionally connected in some capacity, during -and even after- having spent such time together.
The crux of the dynamic is Eiko Matsuda as Sada Abe. How she hasn’t been nominated for awards for her performance is beyond me: she incarnates the character wholly, without reserve, and her every moment is true, uncorrupted by posturing or self-consciousness; for those 100 minutes, she is Sada Abe, a woman possessed by her love and desire for her lover. Matsuda tapped into that headspace one gets into when consumed by another and translated it onscreen.
The way that she wraps herself up in Ishida, clinging to him feverishly, how she escapes to the bathroom with his kimono to breathe his scent in, it looks and feels as real as can be – there is no doubt that this woman is consumed by her love and desire for him. It also serves explain how she lost her way, how she eventually got overwhelmed by this intensity and went off the rails, exhausting him and then killing him during their lovemaking. Matsuda makes this clear.
So I can’t fathom that she didn’t win any awards for this. It’s quite possible that there was so much stigma attached to having sex on-screen, especially in Japan, that it delegitimized her work as an actress even though she wasn’t doing pornography in the proper sense: she wasn’t just faking it for the camera, going through the motions; she brought Abe to life in a context that couldn’t overlook the frank sexuality, given that her relationship was extremely sexual.
If anything, it was probably a very brave choice for Matsuda to make at the time. I’m still amazed that the filmmakers were able to get actors to perform together sexually for the camera. Add to it the breadth of what is shown (orgies, fellatio, cunnilingus, male and female masturbation, sitophilia, urophilia, erotic asphyxiation, …etc.) and how graphic it can get and it’s quite amazing that this film got made at all. No wonder it was banned in so many countries for so long!
Tatsuya Fuji was an excellent choice as a counterpart to Matsuda. I’ve only seen him here and in Nagisha Oshima’s follow-up, ‘Ai no Borei’, and it’s clear that the reason why ‘Ai no Korīda’ works is because he and Matsuda had a special rapport; any other combination would likely not have born the fruits that this pairing did. In fact, ‘Ai no Borei’ falters precisely for that reason: the two leads don’t actually strike up even remotely as intense an intimate connection.
In ‘Ai no Korīda’, Fuji plays it relatively stoic, but it seems in character for a Japanese man during the mid-’30s. He is extremely expressive, but in more subtle ways than Matsuda is; if anything, he plays off of her feverish behaviour and gives the film an anchor it would otherwise be missing. Fuji plays Ishida as a confident, friendly, giving, carefree individual, making him easy to understand and respect despite his flaws; somehow his failings are forgivable due to his nature.
There isn’t much to ‘Ai no Korīda’, plot-wise. What it is, ultimately, is a delirium of sex and sake, as this couple cross paths and then get completely lost in each other, throwing away all other concerns, including their work and partners. They become extremely self-absorbed, self-indulgent, considering nothing else but the moment, being together body and soul at all times. What we get is two people merging, becoming one, no longer two. And then self-destruct.
One could easily say that the relationship isn’t healthy, and I would agree – especially given the obsessive behaviour that it engenders and its ultimate outcome. In many ways it goes beyond obsessiveness and feels like an addiction: these people become incapable of functioning outside the parameters of their ecstasy, and probably would suffer from a withdrawal of sorts should they be apart for too long.
But I also see this as a fantasy, not as something to be emulated to its fullest degree. It is appealing to me because of the fire that is set in their beings. I firmly believe that the type of unrestrained passion that Abe and Ishida experience is something that is enviable; I believe that’s it’s good for the soul, that it brings balance in a way that nothing else can, that in many ways it can be healing to the individuals and the couple.
Bottom line is that ‘Ai no Korīda’ is probably the steamiest film that I’ve ever seen and ever will. It’s not in the sexual acts or in the way that it was shot, but entirely in its tone. It doesn’t get more real than this. Add to this the fact that Oshida made a picture that looks and sounds fantastic and all I can add is that it’s a total feast for the senses (and now that it’s been released on Blu-ray by Criterion, who made the most of the material, it truly shines).
‘Ai no Korida’ is not for the prudish or impatient, but those who can commit to it fully will find it incredibly satisfying.
Date of viewing: July 4+7, 2013