From the release of his first feature, A Cruel Story of Youth, in 1960, Nagisa Oshima seemed hell-bent on confronting every aspect of high-and-low Japanese culture that he could find the money to dissect on film. But, by 1976 something had changed. Oshima's instinct for provocation and his radical politics were as caustic as ever, but the often brilliant inconsistencies and agit-prop tactics of his earlier films had given way, momentarily at least, to a strange kind of tenderness and sensuality that lead to the director's pornographic masterpiece, In the Realm of the Senses.
In the film's opening scenes we meet Sada (Eiko Matsuda), a newly hired attendant at a respectable inn owned by Kichizō (Tatsuya Fuji) and the wife he makes love to every morning before walking to the fish market. The world that they share is pedestrian; Sada scrubs the floors and serves guests their sake, while Kichizō spends his nights drinking and singing drunkenly along with the geisha he has sent to his room. At first Sada and Kichizō are drawn to each other for a couple of drunken nights screwing under the nose of his wife, but those nights quickly multiply into days and weeks, spent in windowless inns, in the company of no one else but themselves and a few shocked attendants.
As the couple gradually abandons every aspect of the outside world, their passion moves from a kind of spectacle that pleases themselves as well as others, to become a purely private reality and form of communication. The innkeepers who used to giggle or lose their breath at the sight of Sada straddling Kichizō with the door open, suddenly begin to complain about the smell of the rooms they never leave, and hint at the gossip and rumors about them that are spreading around town.
One day or night—it becomes impossible to tell—Sada whispers to her lover that he is beginning to look like a corpse. It then becomes obvious that theirs is not an act of libertine-ism, which can go on for ever, but a desperate act of love that requires an ending—culminating in the scene that made the real life Kichizō Ishida and Sada Abe world famous.
But for the sex, In the Realm of the Senses is Nagisa Oshima's most classical film—except that sex is both the vehicle for the story and inseparable from its meaning. It is essentially the story of a woman and a man falling illicitly in love, and struggling to maintain that love or find the way to its end. There is nothing radical there, except that Oshima shows what could have been written in any erotic novel from the 16th or 17th-century, but is never shown on screen, much less in Japanese cinemas in 1976.