'In The Realm of the Senses' directed by Nagisa Oshima / Currently streaming via Hulu Plus

Sada Abe became something of a folk hero in Japan when, culminating a devastatingly insistent weeks-long love affair in the spring of 1936 with Kichizo Ishida, the owner of the inn at which she worked, she inadvertently (or not) asphyxiated her lover and absconded with his genitals, which she had severed in an effort to keep close the part of him that held the greatest significance for her--a story most notoriously recounted in Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses." As the title suggests, "In the Realm of the Senses" is almost entirely concerned with the body, but rather than simply inverting the typical privileging of some ineffable, spiritual aspect of romantic love, Oshima's film makes the case that it is in fact the body itself that is transcendent. Early in the film, as the couple rides in the back of rickshaw to their first extended sexual outing, Sada (Eiko Matsuda) worriedly exclaims, "Oh no . . . I just got my period," in response to which Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) removes his hand from his lover's kimono and sucks the blood from his fingertips. Kichizo's act shouldn't really retain the power to shock us in 2015 and yet it does. And though we know from the beginning how this story is going to end, Oshima is at pains to demonstrate to us that the pleasure principle and the death drive are merely two sides of the same coin. For all the notoriety revolving around the movie's depiction of unsimulated sex acts--and there is no shortage of unsimulated oral, vaginal, manual, culinary, and even ornithological sex--what is really at stake here is the film's matter-of-fact portrayal of a legitimately sexually liberated and empowered woman. Sada Abe realized her peculiarly powerful sexuality at a young age and was forceful in articulating her desires and taking what she wants. And in Kichizo Ishida she found a man who, despite being her social and economic superior, willingly gave her everything she demanded, up to and including his own life. A woman in control of her body and sexual self-determination in this way was dangerously subversive in the Imperial Japan of the 1930s, and it remains so now in a world in which a distinctly patriarchal social and economic order persists. (David Ford)
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