In the Realm of the Senses

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Review from IMDB

Based on a true story set in pre-war Japan, a man and one of his servants begin a torrid affair. Their desire becomes a sexual obsession so strong that to intensify their ardor, they forsake all, even life itself.

"For four days, carrying the part she'd severed from his body, Sada wandered through Tokyo. Those arresting her were astounded that she glowed with happiness. The story shocked all of Japan. The compassion of the people made her strangely popular. These events took place in 1936."

As described by the final voice over of the narrator, the subject matter of "In the Realm of the Senses" is the most lurid true story to come out of Japan in the years before World War II. On May 18, 1936, a woman named Sada Abe strangled her lover, Kichizo Ishida, during sex at the hotel he owned. Sada was a maid in the household, having apparently retired from being a prostitute, and began an affair with her master that explored passion and pain during sex. That he would permit her to erotically asphyxiate him might have been enough to make this story a national sensation, but after Kichizo was dead she amputated his genitals and carried them with her as she wandered the streets of Tokyo for several days before she was arrested.

Review from

Nagisa Oshima's 1976 film tells the story of this troubled relationship, although it does not end with Sada's capture, but with her holding her dead lover after she has taken her grisly memento and written "Sada and Kichi, now one" in his blood on his chest while we hear the finally narration. Prior to that the film is about the dynamic of the relationship between Sada and Kichizo, with their sexual relationship explicitly presented as they travel the road to their entwined destiny. Consequently, I would consider "In the Realm of the Senses" to be a dramatic film with explicit sex scenes rather than a pornographic film with strong dramatic elements. What you think of the film might well depend on whether you consider the sex scenes to be gratuitous or erotic, although certainly there are other reactions. Simply knowing what you are going to see may be more than enough to dissuade you from seeing the film.

For me the eroticism is tempered by the omnipresent fact that in the end Sada is going to kill Kichizo and amputate his genitals, and there is nothing sexual in the film that is going to make me forget what is going to happen in the end. Nor is there anything here to suggest that the director is thinking otherwise. In the climactic scene the camera is shooting from in front of the couple, with the emphasis on his bound hands and her pulling on the scarf around his neck to cut off his air, and not on where their bodies are joined. Their sexual pathology is displayed and not explained, but I do not think Oshima can be faulted for failing to explain the unexplainable. We see how their sexual activity moves in inexorably in its fatal direction, and how the willingness to go beyond all the way becomes part of their attraction to each other. Ultimately the question is not whether the film is sexual, but whether the true story it tells feels real, and by that standard I think it succeeds.

The movie is currently rated NC-17, but was obviously first rated X by the MPAA. Oshima was unable to finish the film in Japan because of censorship laws, which is why the production is officially listed as being French and the undeveloped footage was shipped to France for both processing and editing. In Japan the sexual activity has been optically censored ever since the 1976 premier. The United States and the Netherlands are some of the only countries where the film has been available in completely uncut editions.

Sada was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, but her sentence was commuted in 1940. Assuming an alias she married, but her husband divorced her when he discovered her identity. She then became an actress, actually portraying herself in several productions about the infamous incident, but after 1970 she dropped from sight and her final fate remains unknown. In addition to "In the Realm of the Senses," the story has been told cinematically in "A Woman Called Sada Abe" (1975) and "Sada" (1998). However, this version is far and away the most notorious, and for good reason. For many people simply hearing her story is enough and they will have no desire to see it depicted cinematically. Certainly my curiosity is satiated on the matter.


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