Be My Knife

Sex as transgression and transaction in Oshima's political erotica
by Michael Atkinson  posted September 29, 2008
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“I desire you so, and one day I’ll use my knife on you,” the whorehouse maid-turned-unstable nymphomaniac of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) says as she grips a huge butcher’s blade in her teeth and then proceeds to mount her lover and strangle him at the same time. Once you’ve seen her do this (the remarkable actress is Eiko Matsuda, and her career did not prosper), in fact, once you’ve seen anyone do this, there’s little chance you’ll forget it. But Oshima’s movie—by far his most famous and notorious, and something of a freakish, stand-alone obscure object in the history of cinema—is far from merely a taboo-boiling hardcore tchotchke on the nether shelf of semi-forgotten art-house hits. It might just be the most lucid and uncompromised film about gender politics ever made by a major Asian director.

Given that Oshima was hurtling down the tracks laid by Mizoguchi and Ozu, and by the courtesan tragedies of the Edo period, that’s saying a great deal. But the context in which Oshima emerged, setting gasoline fires in the rock gardens as he went, remains all but unappreciated in English-language culture. The glories of New Wave-ism were many and varied—the spontaneous postmodernism of the French, the satiric vividness of the Czechs, the brooding hyperrealism of the Hungarians, etc.—but none of the national movements in the postwar era expended nearly as much ferocious energy excoriating its own culture as Japan’s. For most of this New Wave’s span, the vast majority of important homegrown films explained in loving, raging detail exactly how Japan has found itself to be a dog pit, a pigsty, a junkyard, and a brothel, inhabited by feral cretins, worthless whores, soulless vultures, and corpulent maniacs. There barely seemed to be any other contemporary subject to make a film about. Take as a whole the '50s-'60s oeuvres of Oshima, Imamura, Masumura, Suzuki, Teshigahara, et al., and you confront a vision of Japan littered with subhuman venality, an endless variety of bottom-feeder metaphors, and an inexhaustible catalog of ways and means for one human being to exploit another until there’s nothing left.

This often took the form of the new capitalism, the Coca-Cola-ization of Japan accelerated by postwar food shortages and black market power, but it also meant whorehood. As it was, Japan was traditionally a culture that institutionalized the whoring of women, going back centuries. But in the New Wave a fresh outrage emerged, in films—set in the present or revisionisms of historical eras—that ran mad with cluttered lowlife hyperbole and depicted sex as a ravenous transaction. The commodity at stake, though, was like bootleg dynamite, likely to create chaos. There is simply no counting the instances, from Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships to Suzuki’s Gate of Flesh to even Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes and far beyond, in which the space between a woman’s legs is bartered, rented, bought, and sold. While far from the most nuanced of the New Waves, the Japanese was the most socially critical, and the most daring.

In a landscape where women were marketed for use as sexual receptacles, sex was more of a partner with death than with love, and the violence that had always reigned in Japanese culture—military, paramilitary, or otherwise—was cut loose of its authoritarian moorings and galloped freely through the streets. In the Realm of the Senses wasn’t originally titled Love’s Bullfight for nothing. The film begins as a neorealist geisha saga, diametrically opposed in texture to Mizoguchi’s grace-under-pressure portrayals—gritty, assaultive, decidedly unpretty—but then we see the first, rather grungy insertion shot, and the stakes are raised through the roof.

We’ll take the busted taboo mixture of porn and art film, so newsworthy then and still, as read. Beyond that, the film’s graphic nature is integral to Oshima’s program—first, as an act of neorealism, demystifying the geisha paradigm from a legendary craft-cult of pleasure-magic and feminine mystery to graceless, soulless no-nonsense prostitution. More vitally, we’re awakened to the reality of coitus as it functions, moment to moment, in the characters’ lives, and, almost clinically delineated, as it serves the social structure, from the erection-fixated top on down. But the sense of humiliation—of Matsuda’s Sada being forced to lay a hard-boiled egg, to sing and play lute music during sex to avert suspicion, to ignore her mate’s casual smoking as she administers to him orally—evolves into a mission. As Sada begins to control the situation more and more, by way of an idealized nymphomania gone awry, every sexual act in that sweaty, unwashed teahouse-whorehouse room becomes a struggle against systematized oppression. Drawn out, repetitious, as methodical as the film itself, the woman’s dogged, delirious fornications are always actively striving toward some unarticulatable goal. (As played by Tatsuya Fuji, whose career did not suffer from Oshima’s film and has gone on to make films with Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike, the man is largely a passive participant in this sexual face-off, and most of the sex is woman-on-top.) We watch every grind and undulation, and as much as the characters claim to anyone who’ll listen that they’re hypnotized by "pleasure," the reality of the action feels closer, for Sada, to a Sisyphean effort to make something else out of sex besides her mate’s lazy satisfactions, something defiant and fearsome, a depatriarchalization of the moment.

Resistance is the secret agenda, a Thelma-&-Louisian hunt for freedom not in escape but in head-on alchemy, converting the compliant-woman role into a life-lust that can only climax, as it were, with the death of the man. It’s a process you have to watch, at length. Famously, it’s also a true story, but what’s not well known outside of Japan is the eruption of sympathy Sada received as her tale of compulsion became public during her 1936 arrest and trial; she served only five years for second-degree murder and corpse mutilation and remains a regional myth figure, a woman who loved so desperately she twisted the old role of women in her society inside out. (She disappeared from the public record around 1970, at the age of 65.) Her lover may’ve been asphyxiated and castrated, but Sada was the notorious incident’s authentic martyr, a Saint Joan of Babylon.

Famously an eclectic stylist, trying on new visual approaches as the subject demanded, Oshima didn’t seem to be a feminist so much as an objective critic of his culture in the cynical Buñuelian sense (something he shares, in different ways, with countrymen Imamura and Kiyoshi Kurosawa), less amused perhaps than the Spanish master but no less fascinated by the sexualized folly of man. (He did, however, host a TV show that interviewed troubled married women, labeled, after Molière or Gide or both, The School for Wives.) Realm was an explicit autopsy on the Japanese tradition of erotica, but sex as it’s used in genre fiction and as real-life merchandise was never far from Oshima’s narrative thinking. Decidedly unexplicit and relatively orthodox, his Realm follow-up Empire of Passion (1978) adopts a James M. Cain-like template—young man plus older married woman equals murdered husband—but the fallout is just as scathing: once you scan through the layers of proto-noir suspense and comeuppance plotting, what stands at the film’s core is a woman endlessly manipulated and subjugated by the men in her life, one of whom happens to be a ghost. Oshima’s crashing, fevered generational breakthrough Cruel Story of Youth (1960) took a full-frontal approach, following a schoolgirl’s path through a tumultuous postwar Japan as she’s pulled down by a felonious boyfriend into seducing and blackmailing horny salarymen; he, in turn, gigolos for an older woman. Sex is joyless and interpersonally political, and abortions are as significant a capitalist factor as prostitution: getting them, paying for them, training to give them because ordinary medicine doesn’t pay enough.

The honorable-lecher hypocrisy at the heart of Japanese society, and therefore in Oshima’s view at the core of Ozu and Mizoguchi’s temperate dignity, had never before received such a flogging, and thereafter the New Wave had its agenda and its license to ill. The Sun’s Burial (1960) pushed the bodies-for-sale idea further into hyperbole—crazed hookers and street orphans and corrupt doctors selling black market blood to drug companies, in a rape-inflected parody of laissez-faire capitalism. Thereafter, even Oshima’s shots at genre tended to twist with horny crisis, and to equate vaginal access with money. The Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) begins with a sterling noir plot—a young bachelor in love with a recalcitrant woman gets away with murdering her rapist, only to then have a bureaucratic embezzler who knows about the killing blackmail him into keeping the stolen cash during the crook’s jail sentence—but ends up a sardonic parable on the ridiculous doom that awaits you if try to buy love, not just sex, with a billion yen. A crazy voyage into Godardville, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968) struggles to ease off the posture, but the ethical ire arises nonetheless, as sex is coupled with petty crime, and efforts at both are relentlessly thwarted. The anomie ("I’ll rape you," the hero says early on; "OK, tomorrow," the girl replies) is ruptured by a final sequence of real vandals shattering store windows at night—an impotent gesture in a culture designed to inspire desire, not fulfillment.

Once Oshima became, by necessity, an internationally funded filmmaker in the 1970s, his career slowed and at the same time became wildly unpredictable—who could’ve foreseen, after almost two decades of rancorous battery upon Oshima’s homeland and its horndog masculine imperatives, the thoroughly eccentric Brit POW drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), itself a sexless, womanless dissertation on sublimated sexual struggle, or Max mon amour (1986)? Co-crafted with Buñuel cohorts Serge Silberman and Jean-Claude Carrière, this latter drawing-room comedy-slash-surrealist ransacking of British convention puts a stiff-upper-twit marriage under the extraordinary stress of infidelity with a primate; Charlotte Rampling’s offscreen sexual satisfaction with her chimpanzee lover drives husband Anthony Higgins quietly mad in what could be read as the Sada dilemma posed and solved with a triumphant snort. (The elaborately wrought ape suit worn by female mime-acrobat Ailsa Berk gives this peculiar morality play an otherworldly, or hallucinatorily miscegenative, flavor that stands alone in New Wave annals, and otherwise suggests no corollary better than the anti-patriarchal Joan Crawford missing-link trifle Trog, made in England 16 years earlier.)

For Taboo (1999), back in Japan, Oshima found a narrative in the stories of Ryotaro Shiba that shoves the repressed military tension of Mr. Lawrence into the fake studio noonlight. The director's high beam shifts away from female victimhood—the few women we glimpse are, of course, whores—and falls astutely on its converse, the masculine sex-death obsession, regardless of the gender of its target, and how it covertly organizes the structure of society, even to that society’s, or individual’s, self-destruction.

This is the second in a series of four articles on Nagisa Oshima. "In the Realm of Oshima" will be at the Walter Reade in New York September 27-October 14 and the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto October 31-December 7. Curated by James Quandt and organized by the Cinematheque Ontario, the series will travel to approximately a dozen cities in the United States and Canada in the coming year. 


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Courtesy Cinematheque Ontario/Film Society of Lincoln Center
Eiko Matsuda in Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses
Photo Gallery: Be My Knife


September 27-October 14, 2008 In the Realm of Oshima


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Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct