Tales: 愛のコリーダ In the Realm of the Senses

In the Realm of the Senses or L ’Empire des Sens is a Japanese art film released in 1976. This film tells the story of two lovers and the passion that engulfs them as ones’ obsession turns deadly. This sounds like an introduction to a Lifetime movie, one where the man or woman does something irreprehensible in the name of love, lust, or desire. Directed by Nagisa Ōshima, In the Realm of the Senses was set in Japan, giving the audience an oversexualized dramatization of an incident that occurred in 1936.

Nagisa Ōshima
Nagisa Ōshima

Although this movie is classified as a pornographic art film, I don’t believe pornographic is the only adjective that should be used to describe it.  In the Realm of the Senses is an intensely sexual movie, flaunting minute-long shots of unstimulated sexual activity mixed with a dash of body horror in the final act. This film is littered with grotesque and disturbing imagery that can motivate any overzealous bible thumper into demanding the destruction of every copy of this movie and its publications. Thanks to this art film, I now know what the singer Meatloaf meant when he said, “I would do anything for long, but I wouldn’t do that.” Yes, readers, it’s that bad, so brace yourself as I regurgitate my thoughts on a film that has period blood licking, erotic asphyxiation, object penetration, hard-boiled egg insertion, bondage, and a host of other sadomasochistic behavior. Welcome to L ’Empire des Sens, where human desire is allowed to fester like black mold, gradually affecting all who languish in it.

The Love & Desire of Sada and Heathcliff

After my first watch of In the Realm of the Senses, I found it difficult to say anything about the film. On the surface, I can say that the costumes, cinematography, and set design were well done. The film also had a style that was unique and if you look at it frame-by-frame there are many incredibly beautiful moments where the two main actors strict stunning poses.  Outside of that, the film isn’t as intriguing as the story behind it unless pornography is what you are after.

As a warning to many, the sexual scenes weren’t merely acted out, the actors are actually having sex, and upon second thought, it seems appropriate that this should be a part of the film. After researching the life of Sada Abe and re-watching the film, it’s then I was able to appreciate In the Realm of the Senses.

At the age of 14, Sada was sexually violated by an acquaintance then forced into a brothel.  Sada had no control over her body and destiny, thus allowing me to believe her crime was somewhat inevitable. The ultimate evidence can be seen in the compulsive need for directors, writers, and journalists to retell this tale; which seems linked to how often Sada had to be “a thing” for men to use. Every man who approached Sada chased her until she gave into becoming their mistress or plaything for an hour or two.  It could be assumed that this provoked a degree of mental unrest, that eventually broke her. The lives that Ōshima captured on film does not end with the film; these people really did exist and are written into the history of Japan.

(A lover’s gaze) Creating intimacy with the story of Sada removes the idea of the erotic-grotesque-nonsense associated with the film and her story.

While killing your lover isn’t what I would deem romantic, I have a feeling that Sada’s love and desire for Kichizō was real. Sada was able to suspend the idea of their relationship ending by killing and encapsulate the memory of the “one” love she knew to be true. She did it by choking Kichizō  to death then removing his genitals. While this may seem morbid, I ask readers to think of the act of sex as two or more people coming together in an attempt to consume each other. Kissing, squeezing, sucking, biting, choking, or spanking are acts of consuming your significant other or making them submit as they brace themselves to be taken. Perhaps the subconscious idea surrounding sex is to consume another to make them a part of you to achieve wholeness or a tiny death. This height of ecstasy is perhaps comparable to achieving a brief loss of consciousness before a great release and rebirth into bliss. It is also when we are the most vulnerable, allowing another to see us at our weakest. Thus creating a bond that leaves us willing to trust, but for Kichizō this was his undoing.

The crime and film are laced with adult content compared to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Heathcliff’s love and obsession for Catherine, even in death, was just as intense as Sada’s feelings towards Kichizō. Even though Heathcliff couldn’t claim to have tasted the flesh of Catherine, it seems important to note that both Heathcliff and Sada held on to a similar burning desire. A desire that possesses and enrages them while inching them closer to their own unique form of self-actualization. Brontë’s novel was painted with purity and innocents to a casual reader; true fans of Wuthering Heights understood the rage and sexual potency that ran across the pages like an invisible thread.

Though not a fictionalized work of dark romance, In the Realm of the Senses illustrates the ultimate example of the never-ending cycle of death and the willingness of characters to embrace this darkness in the face of love. In some ways Heathcliff and Sada had that in common. The most significant literary figures have abused this theme making us believe that stories such as these are fictional. Even though many are birth out of reality, and as time goes by, the act of killing and mutilating one’s lover turns into a myth that takes flight in the world of prose.

The Incident
The real Sada Abe
The real Sada Abe

The incident I am referring to is the sad story of Sada Abe and Kichizō Ishida; this tale is mainly about Sada because she was the only one who lived to suffer the ridicule and punishment for her actions. Sada was born in Tokyo in 1905 and passed away in 1971; she was the second youngest of an upper-middle-class family with eight children. By her mid teenage years, she became a geisha which was a role that didn’t fit her social class.  By Japanese standards, Sada becoming a geisha in her teenage years was too late as most geishas are trained from a very young age. While geishas were viewed as celebrities in their own right, this was a low-class profession compared to Sada’s background and family standing. Moreover, this profession was closely associated with prostitutes, especially for the girls who weren’t trained early.

This part of Sade’s life becomes a bit tricky and hard to understand from an outsider point of view. At 14, she fell into the wrong crowd and was raped by someone in her social circle. After this happened, she became difficult to manage at home, so her father sold her to a geisha house where she became a low-ranking geisha. Since she didn’t have years of training from childhood, she became one of the geishas who provided sex to lower-end clients. This is how she contracted syphilis, but managed to control it in order to continue in her profession. She then left the geisha house to become a legal prostitute in Osaka. She worked as a prostitute for two years then became a waitress, but realized that it didn’t make enough money, so she went back to work as an unlicensed prostitute.

During her time as an unlicensed prostitute, she was arrested then later became a mistress for a married man. Once that relationship was over, she became a restaurant maid and started another affair with a professor and banker who kept her as his mistress. He helped Sada start an apprenticeship at the Yoshidaya restaurant in February of 1936, where she worked on learning the business, so she could eventually open her own place.

Infamous egg scene

This is where she met Kichizō, who was the restaurant owner and chronic a womanizer. Kichizō was smitten by Sada, and by late March of 1936, they started a torrid affair. Once the first sexual encounter occurred, the couple started meeting up regularly at love hotels, where they stayed for days at a time.

Despite being married, Kichizō continued seeing Sada in a relationship that revolved around sake and sex. In many of Sada and Kichizō’s encounters, witnesses say that they often called geishas to perform in their room while having sex. Sometimes even when maids and other hotel staff entered their room, they would continue having sex as if another was watching.

By late April 1936, they had spent two weeks with each other, and it was then Sada told Kichizō that he shouldn’t return to his wife, and if he did, he was never to have sex with her. After the two weeks ended, the couple separated, with Sada returning to work and Kichizō going to his wife. Once Kichizō returned to his family, Sada started drinking more.  This deeply upset her but it wasn’t until she saw a play where a geisha attacked her lover with a knife when she decided to do the same.

Purchasing a large kitchen knife in early May, she threaten Kichizō, but he only laughed it off. He viewed her frustration amusingly and loved the attention. On 16th May 1936, Sada and Kichizō arranged for another meet-up to continue their sexual encounter, incorporating asphyxiation to their activities.

They took turns choking each other, and it was then Sada claimed that Kichizō told her that when he fell asleep from the sedatives he took, she should choke him again. Of course, this didn’t turn out the way they intended, and Sada choked Kichizō to death. She then got the knife and cut off his penis and testicles, wrapping them in newspaper before leaving the hotel.

Later Kichizō ’s body was discovered, and the hunt for Sada started. When she was arrested, she was asked why she did it; she confessed that the reason for killing Kichizō was out of love and not being able to stand knowing that someone else would have him. She served 6 years in jail for her crime and the rest of her life being hunted by the press and haunted by the judgment of others.

Abe Sada Panic

Abe Sada’s panic swept the nation starting in May 1936, which gave a great sense of relief from all the national issues that plagued Japan. Sada was arrested holding his genitals as proof of her crime, a few days after a maid discovered her lover’s body.  When questioned about what she did in the final days leading up to being arrested, Sada said she spent it writing letters to the people in her life, shopping, and visited the movie theater. Then she claimed that she was called to Kichizō’s genitals, so she tried to please herself with them by putting them in her mouth and inside of her, but she didn’t achieve any satisfaction from doing this. Sada then said her plan was to commit suicide by jumping off Mt. Ikoma, holding Kichizō penis.

Japan in the 1936 was straddling a thin line between traditions and the approaching influence from the west. In February of 1936, which happened to be the month Sada met her lover, the Niniroku Jiken incident occurred where an imperial faction masterminded a failed coup killing several politicians. Marshall Law was imposed on the country as one militarist ruler was replaced by another. A host of other political events took place in Japan around this time, leaving the people weary and welcoming of Sada’s story.  While she was judged and used as an example to illustrate the waywardness of promiscuous women, her story caused a frenzy and admiration. Sada Panic was so prolific that a false sighting of her caused a traffic jam and a stampede at a city center.

Many coined this case  “A Tale Of Love, Erotic Asphyxiation, Murder, and Necrophilia”

Sada’s story has been retold in various erotic books. However, it wasn’t until the late 1940s she wrote her own book called Memoirs of Abe Sada, in which she declared her love for Kichizō. Comparing Sada’s image immediately after her crime to her public image in the 50s and 60s, opinions of her changed and deemed her an authority on sexuality and freedom.  She also took part in many magazine interviews, reenacted her crime on a television show about bizarre crimes committed by women, and performed in a play.

Before she ultimately retired from the public, she worked at a pub in her last years before disappearing. It is said that when she made her grand entrance, all the men would cover their genitals with their hands while cheering at her, jokingly saying, “I am afraid to pee” or “hide the knife.”

In the last years of her life, she kept a low profile, and by the time Nagisa Ōshima was ready to work on the script for In the Realm of the Senses, he found her in a Buddhist nunnery with her head shaved. While we can all agree that Sada might have been insane due to trauma and her life’s experience.  Its still important to note that she found her true love and became enlighten all in one lifetime.  I will conclude my banter by saying that this movie and Sada’s story needs a modern retelling.