If you look at academic writing on the artistic & cultural value of vintage pornography, most discussion tends to focus on the genre’s usefulness as unintentional documentary footage. The renegade, unlicensed location shooting and footage of real people acting semi-naturally in their actual day-to-day wardrobes end up serving as time capsules of place & time as classic porn ages, when those effects were often just a byproduct of the films’ severely limited budgets. If you asked golden-era pornographers themselves at the time of production what the artistic or cultural value of their work might be, you’d likely hear a much different answer: defiance of censorship. Many of the pioneers of the “mainstream” porno business had to fight long, vicious courtroom battles to earn the right to make a buck, or even to publish their product at all. Major names like Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Al Goldstein come across as grotesque sleazebags at first glance, and maybe a lot of that reputation was earned. They also did a lot of great work in dismantling the unconstitutional “obscenity” laws that made the production of pornography (and any other artistic materials deemed immoral by highly subjective, Conservative standards) illegal, often explicitly out of a “You can’t tell me what to do” indignance. Many arrests & appeals later, these anti-censorship efforts did eventually chip away at the boundaries of what media was permitted to be published & distributed, paving the way for more mainstream industry shifts like the obliteration of the Hays Code’s lingering restrictions.
If you’re interested in vintage pornography’s history as anti-censorship activism but don’t want to watch something as anarchically lurid as the enema bonanza Water Power, In the Realm of the Senses offers an interesting, accommodating case study. That’s because it’s not exactly pornography in the strictest sense, even though it features lengthy scenes of unstimulated sex between its two main actors. Director Nagisa Ōshima at least partially intended In the Realm of the Senses to be a refutation of the “pink film”, the industry standard of Japanese softcore that’s heavy on eroticism & sexual play, but also incredibly demure in terms of depicting actual penetration or genitalia. Ōshima knew his film would not be permitted in its intended form due to Japanese censorship laws, so he exported it for processing in France and had it shipped to international film festivals as a French co-production. It’s been banned & censored in many countries over the decades since its release but none as harshly as in its native Japan, where it’s still to this day never been officially screened without the blurred modesty pixilation that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Japanese porno. And yet, even though the film explicitly depicts sexual acts from its first scene until its last, calling In the Realm of the Senses a porno at all feels highly reductive. It’s more an intense romantic drama & erotic thriller that just happens to feature unstimulated sex, one that puts just as much effort into its slick production values as it does into its eroticism. If it’s a porno, it’s the only porno I know that’s earned a coveted spot in The Criterion Collection – which I usually wouldn’t point to as a benchmark of legitimacy, but does feel like an indication of artistic & cultural value in this specific case.
Set in 1930s Japan, In the Realm of the Senses is a historical drama retelling the infamous tabloid spectacle of Sada Abe. Abe is the exact kind of public figure John Waters would have written loving fan letters to if she had survived just a couple decades longer: an unlikely celebrity who earned their revered status through manslaughter & debaucherous sex. Sada Abe started her professional life as a prostitute, then found fresh-start employment as a hotel maid. She quickly became sexually & romantically involved with the hotel’s owner—a married man—and the two allowed their initial spark of lust to explode their lives as they essentially just fucked every waking moment away until one of them died. The partner who died happened to be the married man, and Abe was still so mesmerized by her connection to his penis that she severed it and took it with her in her travels, leaving the rest of his corpse behind. This proto-Lorena Bobbitt tale afforded Sada Abe a kind of vulgar celebrity, which she used to support herself in her remaining years as a macabre entertainer. The movie abruptly ends at the moment of genital mutilation, however, so we never get to see that fame-through-killing epilogue. Instead, it covers the time from the lovers’ initial sexual encounter until the violently kinky one that ended their tryst (through overly excited experiment in breath play, which is always a major risk). It’s basically a story about the intensely intoxicating lust period that accompanies the beginning of all new sexual relationships, pushing that mutual-obsession eroticism to its deadliest, least dignified extreme.
I personally most appreciated In the Realm of the Senses as a gorgeous, fully committed precursor to the 90s era erotic thriller, one that’s much more daringly direct about its ugly psychosexual impulses. Any tales of mutual erotic obsession you’d see from mainstream American sleaze-peddlers like Adrian Lynne or Joe Esterhaz are likely to be much more moralistic & sexually timid than this arthouse Japanese predecessor. Ōshima’s film fully captures the unstoppable, life-consuming fervor of intense erotic fixation, and it’s wonderfully tragic to watch two people fully give into their mutual obsession as the world watches them fuck each other into oblivion. It’s clear that Ōshima intended to challenge the boundaries on as many sexual taboos as possible here, though, so that the film also works as an anti-censorship provocation. Lengthy depictions of public sex, cunnilingus, menstruate, piss play, breath play, crossdressing, and selfish female pleasure all feel like they’re designed to push Japanese censors’ buttons even beyond the initial shock of the unstimulated PIV intercourse. What’s incredible, though, is that the film never feels like Pornography in the traditional sense, in that the actors aren’t performing sexual pleasure for maximum visual spectacle. Their encounters are intimate, contained, sensual – even when they involve genital mutilation or the vaginal insertion of food. It’s an oddly tender film about mutual self-obsession that just happens to include hardcore sex scenes. The question, then, is where does the boundary between fine art & pornography truly lie, and what use is artistic censorship if that line can be so easily blurred? In the Realm of the Senses was brave to ask that question so bluntly, but it’s also just a gorgeously sinister love story beyond that provocation.