Even after 35 years, the sexual frankness is jaw-dropping. Fellatio, penetration, hard-boiled eggs disappearing into unusual places, kinky breath-play, it's all going on. The sheer visceral facts of copulation are dwelt on in a way that makes Pasolini's Salo, Ken Russell's The Devils or Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris – the other much-reviled art-sex films of the day – look timid by comparison. But the shock comes not so much from the sex itself, as from its context in a thoughtful, well-acted piece of cinema that draws you in rather than permitting the dissociative distance of porn.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is how fresh the dynamic between master and serving girl remains. The driving force in the relationship, the aggressor, is Sada, a classic bunny-boiler, who swoops on Kichizo with a carving knife whenever he shows signs of flagging enthusiasm. Kichizo is passive, masochistic. Bound together by sex and drunken with passion, the two become happy misfits, flouting the conventions of the immediately pre-World War II Japan in which the story is set.
As Kichizo, Tatsuya Fuji has the less showy role, but he is superb as a man only too relieved to shrug off centuries of patriarchal privilege. He is kindly, urbane, unflappable, but there is a chilling emptiness behind his eyes as he allows Sada to drag him to his doom. Whining, pleading, obsessive and totally paranoid, Sada is a much less likeable character, and Eiko Matsuda does rather pile on the histrionics. On the other hand, it's hard to deny the scale and sincerity of her performance.
Oshima adds another layer of individuality to In the Realm of the Senses through his unusual staging. Apart from occasional glimpses of a 1930s Japan teetering between drab industrialism and flimsy tradition, the film consists almost entirely of interiors. These start off vivid and brightly-lit, with flat, woodblock-like colours that recall the later films of Yasujiro Ozu. Later, as the story descends into drama and near-madness, the shadows draw in claustrophobically around Sada, who, by contrast, grows ever more horrifically vivid.
While the narrowness of the film's focus is the source of most of its strengths, there are times when the story struggles to sustain itself over feature length, and all that sex talk (“I love to watch you go in and out of me!”) can become wearisome. There's also a heavy streak of the kind of morbidity which associates sex with sickness and death. Even so, In the Realm of the Senses is an impressively serious and intimate film from one of the unique figures in world cinema.
StudioCanal is also releasing another Oshima rarity, Empire of Passion. In a remote village at the end of the 19th century, the loutish Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji) forces himself upon Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki,) a woman twice his age. Perhaps because her husband, Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura,) is too exhausted from pulling a rickshaw all day to give her the attention she needs, Seki gets over her initial reluctance, and soon the two are plotting Gisaburo's death. The result is an uncomfortable mix of rural melodrama (think Thomas Hardy with paddy fields) and more outlandish elements, as the ghost of Gisaburo, complete with phantom rickshaw, returns to make Seki's nights a misery.
Stylistically, too, the movie is a bit of a hodgepodge. Although released in 1978, the stagy interiors, theatrical acting and old-fashioned film-stock make it look like it was made some time in the late Fifties or early Sixties. Oshima's direction comes alive during the (infrequent) sex scenes and some of the more bizarre episodes, but, generally, Empire of Passion lacks the clear identity of its notorious predecessor.