Blu-ray
Recommended
4 stars
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Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
4 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4 Stars
Supplements
3.5 Stars
High-Def Extras
0.5 Stars
Bottom Line
Recommended

In the Realm of the Senses

Street Date:
April 28th, 2009
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
May 4th, 2009
Movie Release Year:
1976
Studio:
Criterion Collection
Length:
108 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Rated NC-17
Release Country
United States

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

I don't believe there has ever been a mainstream film shrouded in controversy quite like Nagisa Oshima's 'Ai no Corrida,' better known as ‘In the Realm of the Senses.’ Produced in 1976, the Japanese director's artistic portrait of eroticism has been the subject of much debate due to its extremely graphic sexual content and political embroilment. Although it was filmed entirely in Japan, strict censorship laws forced Oshima to partner with French producer Anatole Dauman of Argos Films and the footage was shipped to France for post-production and distribution. Even after finding a way to circumvent Japanese regulations, Oshima's vision was still either heavily censored or outright banned in many countries including its homeland. Now, over thirty years later, the Criterion Collection proudly presents this landmark taboo-shattering achievement in its original, unedited form.

The film is a retelling of a real-life historical incident that occurred in Tokyo during 1936 that became a national sensation. In the tale, a former prostitute named Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) takes a job as a maid at an inn owned by Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) and his wife. Having a reputation as a womanizer, it doesn't take Kichizo very long to hook up with Sada and the two engage in a torrid affair. Eventually, Kichizo leaves his wife and opens another inn with Sada, where their mad love continues to grow, except Sada's escalating jealousy and obsession towards her lover ultimately leads them on a tragic path destined for disaster.

'In the Realm of the Senses' is perceived as pornographic since it contains both male and female nudity as well as a variety of unsimulated sexual acts, but at the same time, the film is also widely regarded as a masterful work of art. Rather than including them just for the purposes of arousal, Oshima actually uses the sex to propel the story along. Each highly explicit scene is progressively more provocative than the last, and the point is to demonstrate the extreme and passionate bond between Sada and Kichizo, their curious exploration in fulfilling each other's sexual desires, and of course to unleash the green-eyed monster that inevitably sends Sada's compulsions spiraling over the edge. Plus, it helps tremendously that both Fuji and Matsuda approach their roles seriously and with the utmost dedication, so the entire production never really comes across cheesy or distasteful.

Besides the heavy sexual theme, Oshima ruffles a few more feathers by boldly incorporating a subtle political agenda that often goes unnoticed by many viewers. There's one notable scene where children are playing outside and happily waving Japanese military flags to symbolize the powerful governmental influence and control at the time. An even braver statement is the scene that convinced Fuji to sign on to the project, where soldiers are seen marching down the streets, but his character is the only one to walk in the reverse direction -- completely going against the grain of imperialistic unity.

The last thing worth mentioning is that 'In the Realm of the Senses' does plod along at a slow pace, but personally I never once felt it was a drag. Oshima constructed a beautiful set reminiscent of the period for one, and he takes care to continuously mix things up throughout the film, so there's always something interesting to look at on the screen at any given time. Add to that the fact that 'In the Realm of the Senses' was designed to push the envelope and does so in spades, and it's hard not to call it a success. Although how much of a success really depends on your own personal tastes.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

The Criterion Collection has meticulously restored 'In the Realm of the Senses,' and the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.66:1) encode not only presents the film in its full uncensored glory, the gorgeous Blu-ray transfer looks better than ever.

Colors gain a huge boost and are much more vibrant than any of the previous DVD versions, with the oranges, mauves, and the light pastel blues of the kimonos being particularly striking. Black levels are very strong, and the picture has sufficient detailing in the nooks and crannies of shadows. Skin tones are spot on, really showcasing the intricate texture of pores and hair, and even the fine ridges in Sada's glistening lips make quite a splash in high-definition.

Even though Criterion did a great job in cleaning up the print by removing most of the debris and other imperfections, I did notice a vertical film line about twenty-five minutes into the movie that remained for about a minute, and sometimes on the far right side of the screen there was also slight discoloring depending on the scene. The film has a noticeable soft layer of grain throughout and a few minor cases of noise, but make no mistake, it's still a very high quality transfer that looks like it could have been filmed yesterday.

It’s worth noting that the U.S. version of ‘In the Realm of the Senses' Blu-ray is region-locked and therefore will only play in Region A compatible PlayStation 3 and standalone players.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

The Blu-ray features an uncompressed monaural audio track in Japanese that is relatively simple, yet elegant and surprisingly airy.

Although fixed to the center-channel, the track doesn’t feel constrained at all and flows very smoothly. Dialogue is crisp and well-balanced, as are the notes when the geishas pluck the strings of their shamisen, a traditional Japanese musical instrument. I didn’t detect any hissing, crackles, or other flaws in the soundtrack, either. This is a track that won’t test the limits of your sound system for sure, but then again it isn’t meant to, so I’m sure film purists will be satisfied with the excellent audio presentation on this disc.

Also provided are optional English subtitles for the main feature, and forced English subtitles for the bonus material.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

While the earlier Criterion Blu-ray releases came in cardboard digipacks, newer titles like ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ come packaged in a sturdier clear plastic case (instead of the standard blue cases commonly used for the format). The only identifying marker labeling the title as a Blu-ray is a blue sticker on the front of the package as well as the technical specs on the reverse.

The other interesting fact about the Criterion Collection is that the DVD version of any of their titles has the same suggested retail price as the Blu-ray, which makes picking up the Blu-ray version a no-brainer for high-definition fans. In fact, as of this writing, the Blu-ray version of ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ is actually a few dollars cheaper than its DVD counterpart at Amazon.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray releases also contain the same supplemental package, however the Blu-ray special features are all presented in high-definition.

  • Audio Commentary – Headlining the supplements is one of the most informative audio commentaries I’ve had the pleasure of listening to thus far. Historian and critic Tony Rayns lets viewers know upfront what he will and will not be analyzing in the commentary and goes on to provide a great deal of background information on the story, the cast, the crew, and more. Recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection, this is one of those must-listen tracks for anyone with an interest in the film.

  • Interview: Oshima & his Actors (HD, 5:38) – A classic interview with director Oshima and stars Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda originally recorded in 1976 for Belgian television.

  • Interview: Tatsuya Fuji (HD, 17:18) – A brand-new 2008 interview with Fuji exclusive to the Criterion Collection. I found it fascinating to hear the actor share stories and reflect on his experiences from the production over thirty years later, so this one is definitely worth checking out.

  • Interview: Recalling the Film (HD, 38:48) – The third interview segment takes a more technical turn, featuring production coordinator Hayao Shibata, line producer Koji Wakamatsu, assistant director Yoichi Sai, and film distributor Yoko Asakura created in 2003 by Argos Films.

  • Deleted Footage (HD, 12:20) – To bring the film to its desired length, producer Anatole Dauman shortened six sequences with Oshima’s approval. This section includes the scenes in their original form, with the new material presented in color while the unedited footage from the film has been given a black and white treatment to make it easier to see the changes.

  • U.S. Trailer (HD, 2:20) – A pretty tattered and worn trailer for ‘In the Realm of the Senses,’ but it’s still presented in high-definition in any case.

  • Booklet – The final inclusion is a glossy 38-page booklet containing a cast and crew listing, scene chapters, color photographs, an essay "Some Notes on Oshima and Pornography" by Japanese film scholar Donald Ritchie, and an interview with the director entitled "Oshima on 'In the Realm of the Senses.’” It’s an excellent addition of very high quality.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

The only real Blu-ray exclusive is the Timeline feature common to Criterion titles. It enables viewers to bookmark scenes and chapters using their remote.

Final Thoughts

If there is a black sheep in the Criterion Collection, my money is on 'In the Realm of the Senses.' Nagisa Oshima's powerful erotic film tears down cinematic barriers with an artistic flair, but the explicitness of the sexual content may be too much or even offensive for some viewers. Regardless of your personal opinion of the film, Criterion continues to do a superb job on their Blu-ray releases, delivering spectacularly restored video, excellent uncompressed audio, and a wealth of sophisticated supplements to complete a package that easily comes recommended for fans and those with an open mind.

Technical Specs

  • Blu-ray
  • BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.66:1

Audio Formats

  • English PCM 1.0 Mono

Subtitles/Captions

  • English Subtitles

Supplements

  • Audio Commentary
  • Interviews
  • Deleted Scenes
  • Booklet

Exclusive HD Content

  • None

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