Transgression of the Sexual Taboo in Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses”


The concept of “obscenity” is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, “obscenity” disappears and there is a certain liberation. When that which one had wanted to see isn’t sufficiently revealed, however, the taboo remains, the feeling of “obscenity” stays, and an even greater “obscenity” comes into being. Pornographic films are thus a testing ground for “obscenity,” and the benefits of pornography are clear. Pornographic cinema should be authorized, immediately and completely. Only thus can “obscenity” be rendered essentially meaningless.

—Nagisa Oshima, from “Theory of Experimental Pornographic Film” (1976)

Nagisa Oshima

Though Oshima writes that “pornographic cinema should be authorized, immediately and completely”, In the Realm of the Senses is not a pornographic film, as Donald Richie has shown in his essay Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography. Richie, a renowned scholar of Japanese cinema analysed editing, camera angles and Oshima’s use of static shots, without close-ups – while they are lovemaking, Sada and Kichizo are filmed from above. While these arguments, which contrast Oshima’s films to the objectifying pornography, are true, they do not elucidate the meaning behind Oshima’s attack on obscenity and consequently the ambition to overthrow sexual taboos, which he sees as destructive for the individual, whether one is French or Japanese.

The story of the film is simple, and based on events which happened in Japan in the 1930s. Sada is a servant-girl and a former prostitute, who comes to work in the house of an innkeeper Kichizo. He becomes her master, although soon he renounces this title, and they are entangled in a sexual affair which lasts for six months. Living in isolation, they are caught up in a amour fou vertigo, they are completely lost in each other. They live isolated from society, surrounded only with a few women which live in the same house as they do. As they become exhausted from the repeated sexual encounters, they start to choke each other, only to enhance one’s potency, and Kichizo’s life ends with an accidental death in the process. Sada severs the part of him which she cherished the most, and goes from inn to inn displaying it. As these final facts are said, the voice-over which proclaims them, as Richie noted, is a voice of society, a condemning and hostile one.

In the Realm of the Senses #2

Although the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, it was rejected at the New York Film Festival by censors, and some European countries initially showed reluctance to show it, in other words they banned it. In London, the film was screened uncut for the first time, and in Europe, the film was shown in an uncut version shortly afterwards. In Japan, the film was banned until recently. The film was made in a closed environment in Japan, and since it could not be finished in Japan due to its laws on decency, which essentially follow customs, it was shipped to France and completed by the French. These facts tell us something about the nature of sexual taboos and transgression, as the French intellectual and literary figure Georges Bataille understood them. French critics have attempted to understand the film using Sade’s and Bataille’s writings on eroticism, and sadism in the final part of the film can provoke such an interpretation.

On the other hand, one must take note of the specific context where the film was made, i.e. Japan, and the fact that it was made by the Japanese director, who ardently criticized the Japanese traditional society he found oppressive. Oshima’s intention was to deal with the notion of “obscenity”, he correctly found to be existing only when bodies which evoke pleasure are hidden, or not sufficiently shown, but he also wanted to dispose of sexual taboos in process. Bataille’s writings implicitly show us that it is not entirely possible. When Sade wrote his 120 Days of Sodom has was conscious of taboos, and the fact that he is violating them – this fact alone provoked pleasure, and Bataille tells us that this is essentially an experience of sin. Bataille wrote about three different attitudes toward taboos. The first is the traditional one, and the Japanese society falls under this category to this day, the second is “back-to-nature” attitude, which culminated in the West with th ’68 sexual revolution; chronicling its aftermath is characteristic of Bertolucci’s and Agnès Varda’s films. The third would be the one which is conscious of taboos, but still violates them – Sade’s work would fall under this category.

Georges Bataille #3
Georges Bataille

Bataille writes: “Since work, as far as we can tell, logically gave rise to the reaction which determined the attitude towards death, it is legitimate to believe that the taboo regulating and limiting sexuality was also due to it, and the generality of behaviour that is essentially human – work, awareness of death, sexual continence – goes back to the same remote past.” It is important that in In the Realm of the Senses Sada and Kichizo do not work, except for the fact that Sada “works” as a prostitute so they can maintain their endless and compulsive lovemaking. As Bataille sees it, work was the human practice which regulated sexuality. It put barriers around it, and was essential to the development of taboos. The crucial aspect of Bataille’s analysis of taboos is that even when they are violated, they still exist, and are not overturned. Bataille wrote that most scholars explored specific taboos, but sexual taboos in general remain in shadows. In other words, the analysis of sexual taboos in general shows that they are specifically human, they are related to the taboo on murder, historically, but without them, our experience of being human would be entirely different.

These facts help us explain the reaction of American censors at the New York film festival, the initial response of European countries etc. Although these countries propagate the “back-to-nature” attitude, they were still shocked, one might say, by a film which deals with eroticism in such a direct manner, and shows unsimulated sex in the form of art. In In the Realm of the Senses various sexual taboos are violated, in other words perversions which question the established order are promulgated. I highly recommend Donald Richie’s essay, which was quoted at the beginning of this one, mainly to grasp the humanistic attitude of Oshima’s film, and his battle for individual freedom of expression. An important fact mentioned in Richie’s essay, is that Oshima’s film is overtly political. In one scene, Kichizo sees Imperial Army marching and turns away – this shows that he is not a part of the society he lives in and that he rejects its policies.

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This is further shown by the fact that he and Sada live in isolation, which signals a final retreat to the existence which rejects the values of a given society, attempts to transcend it, but as one can assume, this ends with the loss, not of a loved one, but oneself. While Oshima’s battle against sexual taboos might be futile, even in the West (Bataille emphasizes that they can vary across cultures and eras, but they do remain in place), his battle against the concept of “obscenity” can be won. The connection between obscenity and the obscuring of desired images stands – Oshima said: “by cutting and obscuring, you have made my pure film dirty” – and he is correct. Oshima was in court in Japan for violating the traditional norms of decency because of this film, and was acquitted.

Was he on trial for being “obscene” or breaking a taboo? In Japan, for both, but in Western countries, his film was banned or its uncensored screening was not initially permitted, because he was violating the sexual taboo (in general). It is interesting how countries like the United States and Canada, which advocated “back-to-nature” stance on sexual taboos, could not incorporate the film (initially) in its social order, while the British Board of Film Censors advised it to be seen in private theatres. This shows how the liberal order deals with the violation of sexual taboos – it condemns it to the private sphere. All in all, Oshima’s brave attempt to subvert the powers which leave one important aspect of humanity in shadows, was only partially successful – if we follow Bataille’s arguments, it could not have been completely successful. If it could, humanity would be something entirely different from what it is now.

Editor’s Note:

If you enjoyed this article, I would like to recommend you some great books and movies associated with it. You can purchase them on Amazon:

Nagisa Oshima, In the Realm of the Senses


Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality

While some of Bataille’s writings are scarcely coherent – I say that as an admirer – his late theoretical work Erotism is a surprisingly cogent, wide-ranging examination of the obsessions Bataille pursued his whole life long. A devout Christian who abandoned the faith and hurled himself into a mysticism of evil, Bataille sought an atheistic basis for ecstatic experience that would redeem humankind from enslavement to work, security and acquisition. To him, we are anguished, “discontinuous” beings who seek fusion with the universe by way of eroticism, which in its fullest expression approaches death. Erotism pulls in materials from a variety of disciplines – art history, sociology, anthropology – to back up Bataille’s vision of a cosmos consumed by raging violence, where loss and devastation must be embraced.

Book review: Rob Doyle, The Irish Times

Erotism, Bataille

Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History

(…) Then of course there are Richie’s qualities as a writer. That distinctive, calm, authoritative, slightly stubborn, and occasionally authoritarian voice that is so uniquely his, also narrates this tome. The book speeds along a brisk pace and all that, but more importantly, Richie’s prose combines eloquence, elegance, and perceptiveness, turning almost lyrical when the subject turns to Ozu or Kurosawa. Of Stray Dog he writes that the film sought to portray “a realism independent of reality”. About Ozu’s Tokyo Story, he was the first to suggest the now commonly used (and repeated here) phrase, “we do not want the film to end because we would have to leave these people whom we have come to understand.”

Book review: Midnight Eye

Donald Richie, A Hundred Years...






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