In the Realm of the Senses and Obscenity

Timelines: All, Japan Categories: 1970s, Country, Decade, Government, Japan, Law In the Realm of the Senses and Obscenity
Date: 1976


Ōshima Nagisa’s In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no korīda, 1976) is widely known as the first Japanese hardcore film (featuring unsimulated sex) and for its related obscenity controversies. The film’s plot fictionalises the real life of Sada Abe who murdered her lover Kichizo Ishida and subsequently removed and kept his genitals until her arrest. This incident had also been fictionalised in the 1975 Nikkatsu “roman porno” production A Woman Called Sada Abe (Jitsuroku Abe Sada, directed by Tanaka Noboru). Ōshima’s film focuses on the unfolding relationship between Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji, who also starred in the Stray Cat Rock films), with Abe initially working as a maid in Ishida’s hotel. Their relationship becomes intense and hermetic with the couple retreating from society into an inn where their sex becomes increasingly transgressive. While their sexual relationship began with Ishida’s rape of Abe, Abe is centrally framed as the subject of desire and Ishida as willing to please her. In this way, the film is less straight-up pornography than an exploration of sexual power relations, indicated by the original title “Bullring of love”. Driven by jealousy, love, obsessive desire, and the exploration of erotic possibilities, Abe asphyxiates Ishida during sex and severs his penis.

In Australia, In the Realm of the Senses was withdrawn from the Perth festival after being threatened with greater regulation if it was imported, while it was screened at the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals in 1977. Festival organiser and film critic David Stratton (2008) describes providing an informal content warning for the festival audience, lest they be upset and subsequently complain. After initially being refused classification by the Film Censorship Board, a version of In the Realm of the Senses was passed in 1977 with an R18+ rating, the distributor having cut 4:34 from the original. Such refusals of classification and limits in exhibition were repeated in many countries, with a sequence in which Abe pulls the penis of a naked child as punishment proving problematic in the U.K., resolved through reframing to only capture the child’s facial reaction. In the Realm of the Senses was eventually cleared for wide release in Australia in 2009.

Through his film Ōshima launched a challenge against both Japan’s obscenity regime and its film production system (Standish 2005). He received foreign investment so that the film could be classed as a French production, thus bypassing Eirin examination. He also shot his film in Japan on a closed set, and sent the undeveloped film to France for processing and editing (Alexander 2003). The Japanese censorship case thus related to the publication of the film script and certain film stills. In his 1976 essay “Theory of experimental pornographic film”, Ōshima argued that “pornographic cinema should be authorized, immediately and completely. Only thus can ‘obscenity’ be rendered essentially meaningless” (in Ritchie 2009). Ōshima was nonetheless brought to court having published a screenplay with accompanying photographic film stills. In his obscenity trial Ōshima demanded that “obscenity” be defined, stating that “nothing that is expressed is obscene; what is obscene is what is hidden. When we are free to see everything, both obscenity and taboo disappear” (in Ritchie 2009). Ōshima was finally acquitted in 1982. However the guarantee against censorship under Article 21 of the Japanese constitution – that “no censorship will be maintained” – continues to be subject to potential challenge on public protection grounds under Article 175 of the 1907 Criminal Code, which states:
“A person who distributes or sells an obscene writing, picture, or other object or who publicly displays the same, shall be punished with imprisonment . . . or a fine. The same applies to a person who possesses the same for the purpose of sale.” – Liam Grealy

Further reading:
– Alexander, J. (2003). Obscenity, pornography, and the law in Japan: Reconsidering Oshima’s In the realm of the senses. Asian-Pacific Law and Policy Journal. 4(1): 148-168.
– Cather, K. (2012). The art of censorship in postwar Japan. University of Hawai’i Press: Honolulu.
– Ritchie, D. (2009). In the realm of the senses: Some notes on Oshima and pornography.
– Standish, I. (2005). A new history of Japanese cinema. New York & London: Continuum.
– Stratton, D. (2008). I peed on Fellini: Recollections of a life in film. Melbourne: Penguin Books.

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