Still from In the Realm of the Senses, 1976. Image via the Everett Collection.

Sex Scenes: Sometimes, Love Means Severing Your Lover’s Penis and Carrying It Around in Your Kimono

In Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 film “In the Realm of the Senses,” based on the true story of tabloid star Sada Abe, the graphic sex is real—and so is the fear of abandonment inherent to all romantic relationships.

by Rachel Rabbit White
Aug 16 2018, 3:41pm

Still from In the Realm of the Senses, 1976. Image via the Everett Collection.

In The Realm of The Senses, a 1976 film directed and written by Nagisa Oshima, tells the real-life story of 1930s Japanese tabloid star Sada Abe, infamous for erotically asphyxiating her lover and cutting off his genitals. After the act, she wrapped the severed dick and balls in wax paper and carried them in her kimono, trying several times to “use” his parts, attempting to insert them into her various orifices, mouth and vagina, albeit unsuccessfully…though, she admits, she kept trying. Throughout the sensationalist fervor around the killing, Sada was adamant that the media coverage was unfair. The killing didn’t stem from sexual perversion—as the court’s psychologist stated at her trial—nor was it a crime of jealousy. Rather, it was a tragic accident that arose from the purest, deepest love.

In Oshima’s cinematic treatment, the eroticism between Sada Abe and her married lover, Kichizo Ishida is intense. The sex is real, not simulated—which caused the film to be censored and Oshima to be put on trial for obscenity. (At the trial, the director argued that this censorship was the true obscenity; while he was acquitted, the movie has yet to be screened uncensored in Japan.) But the graphic sex is crucial to both the film’s surrealistic and viscerally realistic qualities, capturing that nearly-suffocating phase of being newly in love in all its immanence. Our gaze is never distinguished from that of the lovers. During sex, their genitals are never cropped out of the frame; the focus is on the physical and emotional intensity of a fast-paced romance, the kind where one night turns into weeks on end.

The film follows Sada and Ishida through a string of hotels, the classic trope of a couple on the run. They are curious actors in a dream-like exploration where sex is a constant and perpetual motion: They fuck outside, where people can see; they fuck in front of maids bringing tea and sake; at one point, they involve an elderly geisha. As soon as they’re done, Sada begins again, putting his cock in her mouth. The sex seems both entirely satisfying and never enough, the product of an unquenchable thirst.

The film reaches its climax at the moment of the killing, when Sada chokes Ishida with her kimono sash. Erotic asphyxiation had become a regular part of their affair, and the film is faithful to what really happened that night: Sada finds that tightening the sash makes her lover more aroused, and although he is in pain, Ishida tells her to continue. But with one too-tight tug, he goes completely limp, his face becoming swollen and distorted. Anxious and in pain, Ishida takes a whole box of sedatives. Falling under their spell, he says to Sada, “You’re going to choke me again once I fall asleep, won’t you? If you start, just don’t stop because it hurts too much.” As he begins to drift, Sada mounts him and tightens the sash again—this time, fatally.

Still from In the Realm of the Senses, 1976. Image via the Everett Collection.

To understand the violence with which this love unraveled—and what it meant to the public that made Sada Abe infamous—requires a closer look at Japanese society of the 1930s. Sada Abe’s upper middle-class upbringing was marked by the brutality of a patriarchal world. When she was a teenager, she was raped by an acquaintance, an event that disqualified her from marriage, in the eyes of society. In his 2014 biography Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star, William Johnston writes that Abe’s family would eventually sell her to a geisha house where, without proper training in arts and music, her only way to earn a living was sex work. For her, it was like a prison, and she maintained a rebellious disposition, despondent, stealing from clients and shifting from brothel to brothel, trying several times to escape, a difficult task in Japan’s draconian pre-World War II legal system, in which sex workers were registered and their movements were tracked.

Sex between the two—no matter how extreme—is ultimately a playful act, a form of liberation from the world.

Until meeting Ishida, Sada mostly had sex with clients, from which she said she derived little pleasure, then later as a kept mistress for men with whom she enjoyed sex more. But these were partners she didn’t choose: they were imposed on her either by circumstance or their insistence. Ishida, on the other hand, was someone she wanted. Sada described how he made her feel important and happy, how thoughtful and open he was, “showing his emotions, innocent as a little baby.” He was playful—and, to her, incredibly sexy.

But at the center of Oshima’s tale is not just eroticism, but the loss that is always at the core of love. To love is to lose, the movie states, and in the simplicity of this truth, it avoids any moralizing. The end is going to come—not brought about by an excess of passion or unbridled lust, but because tragedy is the only end a love story can have.

Ishida was Sada’s one true love, and in making her love him, he had, in a sense, done a violence to her. To fall in love is to lose part of your world, to transform it and discover it again through the eyes of your lover. Their habits, voice, their tastes and beliefs, become an inextricable part of how you relate with all that is around you: you are marked, loving everything that carries the other’s impression. But love doesn’t last forever. Ishida wouldn’t leave his wife, and this truth was overwhelming for Sada. Being suspended on the threshold between the rich immediacy of their bodies and the poverty of his absence led to the obsessive thought that if she killed Ishida, the part of him that truly loved her would be at peace.

Still from In the Realm of the Senses, 1976. Image via the Everett Collection.

In the final sex scene, images of Sada choking her lover are interspersed with a vision that takes place in an empty arena, open to a blue sky: Sada lies naked while Ishida and a little girl run in circles. Sada closes her eyes, twitching and moaning as if she were having an orgasm, while Ishida and the little girl continue playing a game of hide-and-seek. Sada calls, “Ready?”; Ishida replies, “Not yet!” Their chant is sweet and melodic like a lullaby. The scene evokes the tender happiness of a family out on a spring afternoon. Sex between the two—no matter how extreme—is ultimately a playful act, a form of liberation from the world.

But eventually Ishida stops replying. Sada keeps chanting: “Ready? Ready? Ready?,” a question that quickly slips into the moaning and oblivion of climax. Only once the orgasm subsides does she become worried; she opens her eyes and realizes that she had been left alone in the arena. Ishida is dead. This is the tragedy that Sappho describes as the bittersweetness of love. To be in love means that someday, we’ll open our eyes and find that the one person who had shared our life has left us, either because we recognize they have fallen out of love or because death has claimed them. After this scene, Sada, slowly, and graphically, severs Ishida’s penis and presses it back inside of herself. The final shot shows her lying next to the body, on which she has written in blood: “Sada and Ishida, never alone.”

Nagisa Oshima
In the Realm of the Senses