Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Internet is for Porn

Film: Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

I knew that Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Sense) contained explicit sex before I watched it. That was pretty much all I knew about the film. What I didn’t realize was that this one is pretty much exclusively about sex and that “explicit sex” has multiple possible meanings. If you’re curious, Ai no Corrida covers pretty much every possible meaning of explicit sexuality you can likely think of.

It’s tempting to say that Ai no Corrida is surprising in its frank depiction of sexuality for the time in which it was made, but that would be a lie. The truth is that it’s surprising in its sexuality for any time—it would be no less startling in this respect were it made today. Within the first 20 minutes, we see penetrative sex, flaccid and erect penii (the one and only proper plural for “penis”) and non-simulated fellatio. Charges that this film is little more than pornography certainly make much more sense in this light. Again, I knew that there were non-simulated sex acts in this film. What I did not expect was that they would be completely undisguised. There is no way to mistake what is happening here. There is no pan up to focus on the actor’s face or action obscured by a conveniently placed blanket. No, this is actual sex. Seriously, we get close-ups and “money shots” and everything you’d expect from the Playboy Channel.

While one way of looking at the film is to see it as a loosely-connected series of sex acts, there actually is a story here, if not much of a plot. Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) is a former prostitute who now works in a hotel as a maid/servant. The owner of the hotel, Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), known for his daily morning sex with his wife , finds himself attracted to Sada. The two immediately begin a passionate affair consisting of constant and constantly escalating sex acts. Eventually, Kichizo becomes so completely obsessed with Sada that he leaves his wife and life behind in a tireless pursuit to please her. Their sex life together becomes more and more extreme, culminating in his need for erotic asphyxiation and her increasing jealousy regarding Kichizo’s attentions. This leads to fairly obvious consequences, and then a pretty disturbing and non-obvious denouement.

Ai no Corrida is evidently based on a true story from the pre-World War II years of Japan, and much of the film sticks closely to the real story of Sada Abe.

But let’s get to the meat of things here, shall we? This is a story that could have just as easily been told without the explicit sex, and in fact could have likely been told much more completely that way. The sex is here as the reason to watch the film. It goes further and does it more often than a film like Last Tango in Paris that contains almost explicit sex acts for the exact same reason. Certainly there are people who will claim that they’re watching it for other reasons: Oshima’s tremendous mise-en-scene, the taboo-breaking style, but most of them are just trying to justify their watching of what would be to most viewers pornography filmed artistically. No one watched Faces of Death for intelligent commentary on mortality; they watched it to see a guy get eaten by an alligator. Same thing here, just sexier. Folks can (and will) claim any reason they like for watching it, but it’s really all about the fuckin’.

Okay, there is something more here, but one needs to get past the vast amount of sex to get there, and I do mean a vast amount. We have sex, fellatio, more sex, something like an orgy, voyeurism, sex in front of other people, the rape of an older geisha, an invitation for Kichizo to urinate inside Sada during sex, the deflowering of a geisha-in-training by a bird-shaped dildo, prostitution, and a rape fantasy, and that’s within the first 45 minutes. There’s also a rather disturbing moment with a hardboiled egg. Yes, I’m mildly disturbed by what I’ve just typed, since I’m imagining the occasional pubescent male visitor, pants around his ankles visiting this page based on a hit from the preceding sentences in his search terms (Hi, young fella. Pull your pants up!).

But there is something more. As much as this film is about sex in all its various configurations, it’s also about obsession, control, and dominance. It’s about the physical and spiritual possession of another person, and that is a story worth exploring.

The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to get past the sex because it’s so constant. Yes, this is a film that pushed a lot of boundaries. It showed explicit sex acts in a film that wasn’t specifically classified as pornography. But it’s also why this film was so commonly and so frequently banned around the world. There’s a way to tell this story and to make it as definitively sexual without making it sex at every turn. Unfortunately, that’s not what we have here, and it’s a rare person who can see past something that often comes with soft focus and smooth jazz to get at the heart of it. I’m not sure I can, nor am I sure I did. And I think that’s where this one is going to have to stay.

For the record, this probably isn’t one you want to watch sitting on your living room couch with the kids running around.

Why to watch Ai no Corrida: A love story that breaks every possible taboo.
Why not to watch: If you’re not prepared for literal X-rated sex, you’ll be scarred.

12 comments:

  1. "...covers pretty much every possible meaning of explicit sexuality you can likely think of."

    2 Girls 1 Cup? Hard to imagine. That's more a German thing.

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    1. It actually gets pretty close to that at times, but that's more Salo territory.

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  2. I agree, this is artistic porn. I was a bit shocked when I watched it, but it was better than Salo at least. LOL!

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    1. A high colonic is better than Salo. I'd choose pretty much everything I've ever watched for this blog over seeing Salo again.

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  3. This is the only film on the list I've refused to finish so far (I haven't got to Salo yet, can't say I'm looking forward to it). I was not expecting the sex, as I went in knowing nothing about the film, and such was my level of naivety that I spent the first few minutes trying to work out how they'd made it look so realistic, before the penny dropped. I think I made it about 10-15 minutes into the film before I decided that this was not how I wanted to spend the next 90 minutes of my life. Congratulations on making it all the way through.

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    1. I get that. It was tempting to walk away from it multiple times, and I'd be lying if I told you I watched it straight through. It's not even that there's actual sex--it's that the sex is constant. It's never not sex. It's never not nudity.

      In large part, it reminded me of being dragged to a strip club for someone's bachelor party. It's titillating for five minutes (Woo! Boobs!), then it's overkill, then it's just sorta gross.

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  4. I haven't seen this yet, although that's not for any attempt to avoid it. I just haven't gotten around to it. I doubt the sex scenes will bother me any unless they turn violent, which I realize they might. There have been dozens of mainstream films with real, unsimulated sex in them and I've seen several (i.e. 9 Songs).

    Related to this, your paragraph about how people might try to wax poetic about the virtues of the film reminded me exactly of Salo. People try to ascribe all kinds of higher meaning to it when it's nothing more than S/M porn where real underage teenagers are forced to eat real excrement.

    Just a heads up on two things: 1. The Idiots has a few seconds of explicit penetration in it; and 2. Playboy is actually R rated entertainment. There's no explicit penetration in either the magazine (which I have had a subscription to since 1986) or in the films they produce. I think you're thinking of Penthouse.

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    1. I s'pose that shows you exactly my level of contact with the Playboy Channel, etc. And it's not so much that the sex scenes are bothersome--it's that the entire film is pretty much nothing but loosely connected sex scenes. It's a constant. It's all sex all the time to the point where it's just kind of...icky.

      So it's not that there are scenes of penetrative sex that bother me. It's that there are almost no scenes of something else. In the 1:42 runtime (roughly), there might be 20 minutes where someone isn't actively engaged in sex. It's just too much.

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    2. All of this made me curious ("go ahead; you know you want to look") and I bumped this to the top of my netflix queue.

      I found it to be both more sexual and less sexual than your post led me to believe. I will explain.

      I found it to be less sexual because if you remove about 30 total seconds from it (15 seconds of oral sex, 1 second of phallic object penetration, 1 second of egg insertion, 10-12 total seconds of vaginal penetration) there is nothing more explicit than a regular softcore film. The rest is people pretending to have sex, shot from angles that do not show anything explicit.

      I also found it to be more sexual because of the obsessive nature of the protagonists. I got the feeling that if the woman could have fused their two bodies into one she would have.

      I agree that the ending with what happened to him was really obvious. I could have done without the last bit of violence, but in a weird way it actual is fitting. And I found out afterwards that this was basically a true story, and that last bit really happened, so that also makes it fitting. (I wonder if this is Lorena Bobbit's favorite movie.)

      That was one of only two scenes that bothered me. The other was when she hurt the little boy by grabbing his genitals. It wasn't remotely sexual, so I wasn't bothered for that reason. It bothered me because of his "it hurts" line. That whole scene with the two kids looked like it was just adlibbed. I think she was really huring him when he yelled and that's why it bothered me. Yes, it foreshadows her cruel nature and what she will eventually do, but I think most people would have understood that about her anyway.

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    3. I think there's a bit more than that here, but you've seen it more recently than I have, so you may be correct on the total amount of actual sex in the film. But the film is completely obsessed with sex, as you say.

      The end is based on the truth, but it's also pretty sick, but again, somewhat appropriate for what we've seen.

      Ultimately, my issue here isn't so much with the ending or even the sex, but with the fact that it's nothing but. I got bored with it, and watching became a chore. There's a way to tell this story without descending into this, I think, and this wasn't it.

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  5. "Icky."

    Yah. I found none of this terribly sexy. It's just... sex. Constantly. All the time. I don't think I was as troubled by this one as Salo, but that's not exactly saying much.

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    1. Yeah, exactly. At some point, it begs the question of how long watching people have sex can be interesting. Answer--less than the length of this film.

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