Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Japanese Screams and Cries and Moans and Whispers

Japanese Horror, whatever else may be said of it, is almost always more visually striking than horror from everywhere else on the planet, at least on its first circulation. Ringu and Ju-On, on top of being great films, looked decent before they were remade with more money for cinematography and production design. Interestingly, Japanese films tended to be much more interesting to look at when they were either big budget studio pictures (which is almost never the case with horror films), incredibly inventive low-budget sets or if the French co-funded the movie. Nagisa Oshima's Empire of Passion and In the Realm of the Senses were funded by the French, specifically by Argos films, a notorious arthouse production company. Before the 70s, Argos had produced some of the finest French films to date including Night and Fog, Mouchette, Masculin Féminin and La Jetée but by the 70s, peoples interest in French New Wave films had begun to wane; people wanted more than edgy editing and audacious narrative techniques so producer Anatole Dauman began looking elsewhere. Seeing as how it was the 70s, even art had taken a turn for the hyper-sexual and Argos found its next cash-cow in erotic art films - specifically La Bête by Walerian Borowczyk and In The Realm of The Senses. Both films opened the door for a look at standards and the great art vs. porn argument that rages even today. In order to really understand Empire of Passion, which is the film I want to talk about, you have to talk about In The Realm of the Senses and if you want to do that, it's best to look at two of Borowczyk's films, the other being Immoral Tales. And seeing as I want to start my look at French Horror films, I'll look at Borowczyk and those films he made for Argos as well. But first, Oshima.

In the Realm of the Senses
by Nagisa Oshima
Sada Abe is a servant in a house run by Kichizo Ishida and his wife. She is also a prostitute but she seems to know that this isn't her calling. When one of her fellow workers privately shows her Ishida and his wife having sex one morning (as they apparently do every morning) she becomes transfixed. She meets the master of the house later and he demands that they have sex. He's almost childlike in his conquest of the young Abe and of other women as well. Abe is shaken up by their first encounter and the second time they meet has acquired a sort of mania about pleasing him, she won't let him return to his wife until she has satisfied him. Not long after, he finds an out-of-the-way inn for them to meet in over weekends and starts lying to his wife about their meetings. Before long the traditional notions of power in a relationship have been reversed. Sada, who now only works as a prostitute, forbids Ishida from seeing his wife or sleeping with anyone else and their sexual arabesques become increasingly strange, anti-social and dangerous. She becomes suspicious of his every move and thought and begins threatening him with mutilation and death, but the tone of her threats never quite leaves the strata of sexuality. As they become more and more unfit for everyday life and more and more dependent on one another, the world moves on without them and they discover that life isn't anything they can or want to continue living.

Sada Abe and Kichizo Ishida were based on real people who spent six days in isolation simply making love to one another before Abe killed Ishida during sex (perhaps accidentally, though Oshima posits otherwise) and removed his penis with a knife - she was still carrying it when the police found her. That was in 1936 and their story was characteristic of the increasing repression that was commonplace in pre-war Japan. They dreamt of freedom and passion but society would not have them; they were alienated and so withdrew from the real world to live on fulfilled desire alone. They barely ate and hardly slept. This story just happened to be the perfect model for what Nagisa Oshima wished to achieve with film. He'd made a truly staggering amount of movies in the 60s, including Cruel Story of Youth, the movie that had kicked off what scholars call the Japanese New Wave. These were films that broke narrative and editing rules made by people who'd come from inside the studio system who couldn't abide by that system's rules. To be fair Japan's filmmakers have almost always been trailblazers and rulebreakers more so than just about any other country's directors. If you compare popular Japanese films to American movies of the same year the difference in style is simply flooring. Oshima even managed to break ground in pornographic film. In the Realm of the Senses is a challenging film and if you read up about obscenity, it's going to be something you know a lot about before you ever watch it but because Oshima was such a good filmmaker the experience of watching it is entirely unmarred by those expectations. He, like his characters, dreamt of a world free of constrictions and boundaries and then went about pursuing that dream.

Senses was a film surrounded by controversy from its very inception. When Oshima traveled to Paris in 1972 to promote his movie Dear Sister Summer, he met Anatole Dauman for the first time who suggested that they collaborate on something. Dauman's first suggestion was pornography. Oshima really liked the idea and his excitement carries over in the writing and direction (there's a tendency in poetry, literature and film for the first erotic works of the author to have a sort of childish perpetuality - everything is sexual, all the time. This is definitely the case with Oshima and Senses). He watched a number of popular erotic films of the time and really enjoyed them, in fact he didn't think his film could match up in anyway to the care shown in many of them. He read about Sada Abe and all of a sudden Dauman's suggestion and his fervor for pornographic thought suddenly had a vessel. Oshima liked the idea of a story that showed love in such an uncertain time (a theme he'd return to in Empire of Passion) and then went about making it as ecstatically sexual as he thought it deserved to be. As someone whose films had garnered plenty of black marks in the past, he knew making his vision come to life would be difficult, impossible if he stayed in the Japanese studio system. He took Dauman's money, shot his film in Daiei studios in Japan and then went back to France to edit; all this care would ensure that Senses would be known as a French film (though it's inextricably Japanese in content) and thus not subject to Japanese censorship, at least not initially. Dauman was happy because he had a sex film he could sell and he did clean up on Senses around the world, he just didn't seem to get what kind of film he had on his hands.

Paul Schrader once told me that Japan was a society of consensus; if they all can't agree on what to think about something, they just remain silent. When Schrader made Mishima in 1986 about the famed writer of the same name, the country had no formal opinion of him and so when it was brought up in polite conversation all the Japanese present would simply fall silent. It makes perfect sense then that In the Realm of the Senses was and remains banned in Japan. Cut versions exist, but there's no chance whatever of the film being shown with the more explicit sex acts untouched. So what do we in the rest of the world get to see that Japan doesn't? Well, real sex, for a start. Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, who play the leads, actually have sex on camera, oral and vaginal - we see Fuji's member as it's inserted in Matsuda's body. As usual, the director was one step ahead of the censors. Oshima was brought up on obscenity charges and to defend himself he basically explained what the hell the big deal was about sex on film. We call something pornographic when it features explicit sexuality coupled with nudity, yet, what the makers of the laws don't understand is that like anything else, pornographic films lose their power when they stop being forbidden. Swear words would cease to be taboo if we stopped treating them that way, but you still can't say 'fuck' on TV. In the Realm of the Senses is not an erotic film despite it featuring what would otherwise be called 'hard-core' sex. It's a movie about obsession and desperation, and despite the almost nonstop sex between its lead characters, what we see is never really enticing; it's sweaty, grim and claustrophobic. Abe is unbalanced and Ishida mentally arrested, which makes for a strange enough pairing when they're not in bed. When they're actually copulating their interactions are bizarre and unnatural. In fact if you removed the sex you'd have a far more unsettling film as their sexual release is really the only thing that can account for their behavior, without it you'd simply have unending tension which was truly brilliant on Oshima's part. He made a film that is uncensorable. Take the sex out and it makes no sense; not only that you've made it dangerous, pornographic. Behind the red tape is sex and anything forbidden is desired. Leave the sex in and the film is a complete depiction of desire gone awry, an unsexual sex film. That's why a film like this needed to be made, to show exactly where our fixation with sex had gotten us.

Oshima's direction is sort of difficult to pay attention to while you're watching it, so depraved and immediate is the sexual content, but once you're finished you understand what it was all about. He directs his leads wonderfully (Fuji is sort of like the Toshiro Mifune of the 1970s). Film critics like to latch onto the scene where Ishida walks in the opposite direction of a bunch of soldiers, but that happens exactly once so I don't care; it felt tacked on and unnecessary. No, you get how smart he was when he did things like the scenes where both members of the relationship have trysts with far older people. The film starts with Sada Abe pleasuring an old man in the street and then toward the end she insists that Ishida sleep with a septuagenarian geisha. The sex that the two have is unpleasantly close when it's with each other, but when it's with the older people, you get that Oshima wasn't just making porn. He shows aging bodies in less-than-erotic circumstances, but his characters treat the encounters no differently than anything else. He seems to be saying "if you like sex so much, why don't you like this?" He was looking at our expectations and norms and that's especially true of the conclusion. These two needed sex, it was all they had, and in the end it was their undoing. The conclusion is pretty unnerving in that, like everything else in the film, it's shown in that same pornographic (that is to say naked) kind of way. We see every detail of it, every second. It's pretty effective and seeing as Americans only counter-point at the time would have been I Spit On Your Grave, that makes this a pretty brave film as Oshima's thesis is nowhere near as malicious or exploitative. It's all out in the open for us to see, which doesn't make this erotic so much as uncomfortably accurate, documentary-esque even. It isn't romantic, because you get the sense that they don't love each other so much as they're held up by one another, they live through and because of each other. It isn't particularly thrilling, but it is hard not to want to see how it ends, even if you know the story of Sada Abe.
It's an anomaly, alright, a self-aware sex film thats not decadent or distasteful. While I didn't really enjoy every minute of the film, it's incredibly hard not to respect the film for what it has to say, which is why its grade is so high. I have to admit that many of my ideas about sex in films have been subsequently revised. Oshima must have understood how complete a statement this was, he only made four feature films since Senses after a decade of working almost nonstop. If you're aim is to examine sex and you make the definitive statement about it, where else can you go? After Salò, how many more films could Pier Pasolini have made if he hadn't been killed? Would Bill Hicks continued recording if he hadn't died? Like Hicks himself said: at some point you've said all that you can say.

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