Sunday, May 2, 2010
Starring: Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda
A breathtaking visual journey along the road to self-destruction, In the Realm of the Senses drags the viewer through a horrifying love story based on true events.
In 1936, a young woman from a wealthy family who had spent her life making poor choices and living fast and hard, went to work in a restaurant. She was trying to make something better of her life and get out of the life of prostitution she had been in from a fairly young age. What she did was meet the married owner of the restaurant and fall into obsession.
According to the book Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star by William Johnston, Sada Abe's crime was discovered a day after the death of her lover and three days later, she was found in a hotel room where she was preparing to commit suicide. She was arrested in 1936 and convicted of second degree murder and mutiliation of a corpse. She was not afraid of being arrested and in the infamous newspaper clipping she was smiling serenely and even asked for the death penalty (see the newspaper photo below). She was only given six years in prison, however and eventually slipped under the radar.
The movie In the Realm of the Senses is just one of the accounts of what might have occurred between Sada and Kitchi in the days before Kitchi’s death. Unable to resist the alure of Sada, despite his previously loving moments depicted with his wife, Kitchi leaves his business and his family and retreats with the former prostitute to an inn. The two fall victim to a great obsession. As Sada's mental illness begins to materialize, Kitchi finds himself victim of her manic desires and plots. Her eccentricities at first are endearing to him, but grow in such a morbid fashion that even though he seems to notice her decline, he cannot force himself to leave her. No one around the couple is safe from Sada's paranoias and violent emotions. Even her beloved falls victim more than once.
The Criterion edition contains three very touching and entertaining interviews, the most notable one done in 2008 with the man who played Kitchi, Tatsuya Fuji (Bright Future). In the interview, he describes the sets as like cocoons, small and impeccable and beautiful, and they were very beautiful. One story from the Criterion interview that I wanted to relate here was the scene that made Fuji decide to take the part when he first read the script. I found it interesting because it was the scene that set the movie in the proper headspace for me and wordlessly described the dissociation of the lovers.
In this scene, Kitchi is leaving the room where he and Sada have been staying, which is a very rare occurance. He steps out into the bright daytime world after endless days and nights in the dimness of their filthy room. He seems a well-off man in an expensive kimono with no troubles in the world. And from the opposite side of the street, as he strolls along, passes a marching group of soldiers. Kitchi sees them and turns away. While the soldiers and the heart of Japan are heading in one direction, Kitchi, and with him Sada, are going their own way, the opposite direction, leaving the world behind. The director wanted to remove this very simple scene from the movie, but Tatsuya asked him to leave it in. This scene, for me, was the turning point of the film, the line drawn between the titillating sexual adventure of the first half and the decline of the second half.
When you first meet Kitchi, he is a very handsome, vibrant man. By the end of the movie he seems a shadow of what he was. This is due not only to the intense passion Tatsuya brought to the role but to the preparations he made offscreen. In the Criterion interview, Tatsuya tells of how he spent most of his time in his room while other members of the cast and crew went drinking and eating. He lost 20 pounds during filming in order to show the demise of his character.
The movie is very graphic sexually and violently. It isn’t for everyone. There are some disturbing images and some emotionally painful issues. I found it more disturbing, heartwrenching, and emotional than almost any other film I have ever seen. I definitely list it in my top ten favorite films.
Comparison with Antichrist (possible spoilers next paragraph)
I normally do not feel very compelled to draw comparisons between movies, but I found that a lot of films came to mind as I watched this one. The themes of loneliness, loss, isolation, and fear are prevalent, and reminded me of the same sort of desperation that was present in Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). The desperation of the females in both movies results in extreme measures to keep their place in the uncertain landscape of their relationships, not only with their lovers, but with the world around them and their tenuous grip on it. The desires of the men in both movies to help the ones they love ultimately lead them down a road from which it is impossible to turn.
The similar endings seem to say something elusive and essential about humanity and the nature of love. There are many other films I’ve seen that seem to take a lot of cues from In the Realm of the Senses, but I focused on Antichrist because it seemed such a modernization of the same story. There is a very deep delve into mental illness in both films, and the co-dependency that results when the partner of a mentally ill person cannot break the cycle of self-destruction.