Review: In the Realm of the Senses (1976)


One would be hard pressed to walk away from Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses without having formulated an opinion or have gone through some sort of emotional response. The film provokes and assaults those without the proper framework to contextualize what they are being presented. This film is a prime example of the power of the medium. It is nearly impossible to shut off the body and brain’s response to what is being presented. The human animal has not yet evolved to the point where we can fully differentiate reality from the artistic representation of reality. We are conditioned to react to the stimulating and titillating elements of film, despite the fact that film is a (mostly) two-dimensional and subpar representation of reality that our logical mind knows cannot inflict harm or pleasure, but our bodies react as though it can.

Why does our heart sometimes race when we are fully engaged in a particularly exciting action sequence? Why do we become stimulated at imagery depicting sexual acts that we may never experience between people that we may never meet? Why does the image have the power to disgust us when the acts portrayed on the screen are contrary to our own lifelong “moral framework” when clearly these images have no bearing on our own physical world? I can understand the evolutionary need to be repulsed by certain stimulation that we encounter as it is conditioning that has instilled itself through the evolution of the human animal in order to protect us from disease and possible harm, but why does the image hold almost as much power as acts being carried out in front of us? Will we ever evolve past the point where our actions are out of our direct control through stimulation that our logical mind understands is not reality?

Perhaps desensitization to the image is going to be part of the next phase of human evolution. We hear reactionary lamentations about the dangers of desensitizing our children through too much visual stimulation and subversion of conventional morality portrayed in various mediums, but perhaps this is the path to better understanding humanity. If we run from imagery that provokes us or challenges our moral code, we are forced to confront head-on that which we had been covering our eyes and pretending did not exist. Ugliness exists in this world, and to pretend that it does not is to deny elements in ourselves as “civilized” members of society. Instead of denying these darker elements in ourselves, why not confront them and use their power to analyze our own moral framework instead of taking it at face value. We might find a more profound connection with the rest of humanity, as any action of a single human is an action of humanity. If that human is acting out in a way that subverts your conventional notions of civilized behavior, then we must analyze why we had established these conventions in the first place.

If we can carry out this discourse within ourselves in an honest way, then maybe we can find more profound connections with our fellow members of humanity. The universe is too transient in nature to tie ourselves down with expired moral codes that we arm ourselves with to battle those that would aim to subvert generations of rules that had evolved from conditions that may have been present at the time but are no longer applicable. This is Oshima’s power as a filmmaker. Through deliberate provocation, the thoughtful are forced to contend with framework existent in ourselves that we would like to pretend is not there. Surely we are far too “erudite” to be challenged by provocative images. The reality is that very few are evolved (or perhaps insane?) enough to not have a visceral response to the provocative image. Oshima doesn’t provoke for the sake of empty provocation. He has created a world where two people act in direct defiance of conventional morality and socially acceptable sexual behavior. The two protagonists in In the Realm of the Senses are occupying a world of complete and raw humanity in defiance of the rules of the rest of civilization. Civilization is responsible for war, poverty, hunger, homogenization of identity, and many other undesirable elements. It is only through the subversion of the conventions of civilization that we can begin to question why they existed in the first place. We may never find these answers, but asking the questions brings us one step closer to an understanding of ourselves.

90/100 - This film is a prime example of the power of the medium. It is nearly impossible to shut off the body and brain’s response to what is being presented.

Matthew Blevins

Behind me you see the empty bookshelves that my obsession with film has caused. Film teaches me most of the important concepts of life, such as cynicism, beauty, ugliness, subversion of societal norms, and what it is to be a tortured member of humanity. My passion for the medium is an important part of who I am as I stumble through existence in a desperate and frantic search for objective truths.