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 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 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.
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.
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.