In the Realm of the Senses, a film based on a true story about sexual obsession

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In the Realm of the Senses is a 1976 movie directed by acclaimed director Nagisa Oshima about sexual obsession gone awry. I watched it on Friday night, and can safely say that I have never seen anything like it. 90% of the footage is sex scenes, but it looks more like Edo period erotica art than porn &mdash beautiful, fleshy scenes of a man and a woman (and sometimes, a man and women) exploring their sexuality on tatami mat floors with their kimonos strewn all over the room. It’s set in the 1930s, when prostitution was legal and geishas were commonplace. Sada, the female protagonist, is a prostitute-turned-maid who she gets involved in a lusty affair with the charismatic master of the hotel she works at. They have sex all day and all night, and Sada quickly develops a serious obsession with Kichi’s penis. Sounds like campy porn, but the actual film is nothing of the sort &mdash it’s a true story told in a really beautiful artsy sexy way. Oshima takes us on a journey through their affair that is so provocative that the film had to be produced in France, was once banned from the NY Film Festival, and to this day is censored in Japan*. The Criterion Collection just released a fully uncensored version of the film with extras, though, and that’s available all over the Internet. (Warning: Spoilers ahead! If you want to stop reading now and just watch the movie, you can get the Criterion collection DVD on Amazon.)

Sada_AbeSada Abe was a real woman, as was her lover Kichizo Ishida, and Sada really did cut off Kichi’s penis after strangling him in his sleep on the morning of May 18, 1936. Before she slipped away with his penis and balls in her purse, she really did write “Sada and Kichi together alone” on his thigh and carve her name into his his left arm. The film ends there, but Sada Abe’s life doesn’t. For four days after her crime, she went from one hotel to another, using aliases and plotting her imminent suicide, precious penis in tow. Before she could kill herself, though, she was arrested and put on trial. In court, she told the full story of her love for Kichi and her obsession with his penis. Her testimony became a bestselling publication and even the judge allegedly admitted to being turned on by her story. She asked for the death penalty, but was released from prison five years later. After that, she took on an alias and became a mistress to a guy in a Tokyo suburb, and later got a job at a working class pub in Tokyo.

Another interesting factoid: After playing the role of Sada in In the Realm of the Senses, Eiko Matsuda was unable to shed her reputation as the first Japanese woman to have real sex in a movie sex scene and dropped out of acting entirely. Tatsuya Fuji, the guy who played Kichi, continued on to act in over 50 movies and is still successful today.

There are several books and movies about Sada Abe in English and in Japanese, including her own autobiography and a chapter in Donald Richie’s Japanese Portraits (Richie actually visited the pub she worked at several times, and observed drunk customers making jokes about her crime while she served them). The extreme brutality and sexuality of Sada Abe’s crime, as well as her almost wholesome honesty about why she did it &mdash “I loved him so much, I wanted him all to myself” &mdash provided a generous dose of lusty, scandalous entertainment to a nation otherwise mired in news about the imminent Pacific War. It’s such a fascinating story, and the film is really beautiful. I highly recommend it, though it’s definitely not something to watch with the kids.

Get In the Realm of the Senses – Criterion Collection on Amazon

Books about Sada Abe in English:
Japanese Portraits: Pictures of Different People by Donald Richie
The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals by Mark Schreiber
Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan by William Johnston

Btw, here’s the trailer:


*In Japanese movies, even porn, genitals are obscured with “mozaiku” &mdash mosaic panels

3 thoughts on “In the Realm of the Senses, a film based on a true story about sexual obsession

  1. Lisa, another well written article. Loved this movie. Things is, the sex content can be a little overwhelming so its easy to miss the underlying commentary/art in it. Did you know Coppola had a hand in getting it screened in the States?
    I’d be interested in seeing a followup of the actor and actress as some kind of discussion of gender roles in Japanese media.
    (Did I really say that? wow, pretentious today, must be the cereal.)