In the Realm of the Senses

is a 1976 Franco-Japanese film directed by Nagisa Oshima. It is a fictional and sexually explicit treatment of a true story which occurred in 1930s Japan, that of Sada Abe. It garnered great controversy during its release; while it was intended for mainstream release, it contains scenes of unsimulated sexual activity between the actors (Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, among others).


The Japanese title Ai no Corrida reflects the intellectual sources which affected Oshima at the time – specially the French writers Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille. The French title L'Empire des sens (Empire of Senses) is a pun derived from that of Roland Barthes' book about Japan, L'Empire des signes (Empire of Signs, 1970).

The "In" in the English title resulted from a translation error. The designer of the English-language materials for the film assumed that the "in" ("dans") in French-language production material was not referring to the stars who were in the film, but was a part of the title itself. The name stuck, and titles in other languages tend to follow this English convention.


Set in 1936 Tokyo, Sada Abe (Matsuda) is a former prostitute who now works as a maid in a hotel. She meets the hotel's owner, the sexually omnivorous Kichizo Ishida, and the two begin to have an intense affair that consists of little other than sexual experiments, drinking, and various self-indulgences. Abe's possessiveness and obsessive behavior with Ishida grows to the point that she threatens to kill him if he so much as looks at another woman (including his own wife). Their mutual obsession escalates to the point where he finds he is most excited by being strangled during lovemaking, and he soon gives her permission to kill him in this fashion. She then severs his genitals and writes, "Sada and Kichi, now one," in blood on his chest.


Strict censorship laws would not have allowed the film to be completed as per Oshima's vision in Japan. To get around this, the production was officially listed as a French enterprise, and the undeveloped footage was shipped to France for processing and editing. At its première in Japan (and in all prints of the film there ever since), the sexual activity has been optically censored.

In the USA, the film was initially banned upon its première at the 1976 New York Film Festival, but later screened uncut; a similar fate awaited the film when it was to be released in Germany. The film was not available on home video until 1990.

Many individual scenes have been cut from the film for the sake of local censorship. For example, the British Board of Film Classification granted the film an "18" certificate (suitable for adults only), leaving all of the sexual activity intact, but ordered that a shot showing a prepubescent boy having his penis pulled as punishment be optically reframed so that the act itself was not shown. The film has been made available, however, in completely uncut forms in France, the United States (including the current Fox Lorber DVD), the Netherlands and several other territories. It is still banned entirely in the Republic of Ireland.

In Canada, when originally submitted to the provincial film boards in the 1970s, the film was rejected in all jurisdictions except Quebec. It was not until 1991 that individual provinces approved the film and gave it a certificate. However, in the Maritimes the film was rejected again as the policies followed in the 1970s were still enforced.


The film does not so much examine Abe's status as a folk hero in Japan ("Pink film" director Noboru Tanaka's film A Woman Called Sada Abe explores this theme more directly) but rather the power dynamics between Abe and Ishida. Many critics have written that the film is also an exploration of how eroticism in Japanese culture is often morbid or death-obsessed. Oshima was also criticized for using explicit sex to draw attention to the film, but the director has stated that the explicitness is an integral part of the movie's design.


The movie has had a lot of influence on BDSM thinking and philosophy and is often discussed in chatrooms. A similar theme runs through The House of Correction, a novel by Bernard J. Taylor in which the only way a lawyer can ultimately prove his love and assuage the obsessive jealousy of the woman he loves is to sacrifice his manhood for her. The movie is referred to in the narrative.

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