2016 Film Essays

At the Cinémathèque: ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ (Nagisa Ôshima, 1976)


Georges Bataille theorized that eroticism lies in the meeting of sexual desire and the transgression of the forbidden. As death remains the ultimate taboo, true eroticism becomes about the transgression of the ephemeral life and entering a perverted sense of grace. No film better embodies this quest for immortality than Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, based on the true story of Sada Abe, a Japanese woman who asphyxiated her lover and then cut off his penis and testicles. As the first part of a double feature including Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the film made for a perfect end to the Cinémathèque québécoise’s History of Eroticism program.

The sexual obsession at the heart of In the Realm of the Senses works against all sense of survival. Rather than equating madly obsessed lovers as animalistic, Oshima’s narrative presents them as tangibly human. While some animals die shortly after they mate (and an outlier marsupial literally mates until it dies), the quality of sexual obsession seems to be a human pursuit. More than just the quest for pleasure, the acts depicted by Oshima transcend any physical needs and reach towards a spiritual one. Abe’s story has not only attained the status of a cautionary tale, but has integrated itself so deeply within the realms of philosophy and art that Abe has, in effect, transcended her own death.


The unsimulated sex scenes become integral to Oshima’s vision, connecting the truth of real sex to the transgression of depicting the human figure on screen. In The Realm of the Senses is not pornography, however, as the subgenre has never been a narrative form. Adult films are about performance above all else, in the sense of both representing a literal action and the act of staging something understood to be fake. The veil of artificiality lets a willing audience engage with the unsimulated sexual acts at a comfortable distance, where they are able to enjoy the material as a tool for gratification. Too much intimacy elicits more discomfort than pleasure, and as Oshima’s work engages with unsimulated acts, he intimately challenges the label of pornography. In presenting real sex, Oshima transgresses on the forbidden nature of sexuality as a private and personal experience. In the Realm of the Senses acts consciously to break down taboos to liberate the audience from their own obsessions.


Rather than reach for eroticism, however, Oshima tries to transcend it. Erotic desire connected to death not only offers a moral problem but a deeply spiritual one within his work. Unlike Bataille, who saw eroticism as a kind of human poetry, Oshima sees it as a more destructive force. The indulgence in a transgressive desire does not achieve a higher sense of being but refutes the warmth and pleasures of the mortal life. Sex itself, removed from the tangled obsessions of the erotic, becomes a symbol of life and pleasure rather than a self-effacing tool propelling us towards our own deaths. In the forbidden, Oshima reveals the fear of our own meaninglessness and our inability to face death as a certainty.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.