Ai no corrida

(1976) Dir. Oshima Nagisa


During the first ten years of the Showa period (1926-1989) in Japanese history, the Militant Faction of the Army staged a coup. This endeavour to overthrow Imperial power resulted in the assassination of Finance Minister Takashasi Korekiyo and after a three day revolt the military rebellion ended. An incident that would coincide with the rebellion was of individual magnitude – three months after the failed coup, a prostitute named Sada Abe was apprehended by Japanese authorities for her role in the death of Kichizo Ishida. Upon her person were Kichizo’s severed penis and bloody testicles, organs she had removed after he was dead. Her personal rebellion and revolt also lasted three days.

Forty years later, filmmaker Oshima Nagisa whose oeuvre consists of many keiko-eiga films, produced and subsequently released Ai no corrida [In the Realm of the Senses] (1976). Its suji (described in its crudest form) is based upon Abe’s exploits of 1936 and her sexual affair with former master Ishida. Oshima was regarded as a New Wave filmmaker, iconoclastic with his subject matter and techniques and had a tendency to establish a strong correlation between political and sexual repression, Ai no corrida is no exception. In creating the film text, Oshima rebels against Japanese tradition, not least the cinematic conventionality which viewers of Japanese narrative cinema had grown to expect; a veritable representation of what it was like to be truly ‘Japanese’.

These new stories could not be told in the old ways; new content demanded new forms. Traditional forms – the old classical style of conventional studio filmmaking – reflected the political and cultural status quo. To critique and reform a corrupt society, to change the way people think and act, would require a change in how they see and hear.  (Nelson Kim, Senses of Cinema, 2004)[1]


In order to accomplish what Kim describes – the art of the New Wave filmmaker – the director must rebel. This is clearly evident in the film’s form and content, namely its transgression and explicit depictions of sexuality. Ai no Corrida in its entirety sees scene-upon-scene of penetrative sex, fellatio, autoeroticism, rape and abjection; taboos which are rarely broken in mainstream, progressive cinema. Sexual activity is, universally a private activity, one which is usually performed behind closed doors; an act of intimacy which is played out, much like a theatrical performance  and one which is central to the film’s mise-en-scène (Turim, 1998)[2]. Oshima invites the spectator into the couple’s clandestine domain, their ‘realm’ and encourages voyeurism alongside unequivocal exhibitionism. With his use of tight framing and enclosed, claustrophobic settings and locations, the viewer has no choice but to look; to embrace the visuals and read-between-the-sex, as it were, for a deeper political reading. Pornography it is not, as no frame serves for pleasure or titillation.


Ultimately, it is the objectification of the representational – both vigorous and at times inventive – sex which functions in alienating and distancing the viewer. This can be read as both an element of political modernism or a clever and distinct filmmaking technique in which the spectator experiences the same isolation and disjunction Sada (Matsuda Eiko) and Kichi (Fuji Tatsuya) are subjected to. Perhaps it is both or neither, one thing is clear and that is the protagonists’ segregation, from themselves, from thirties’ militant Japan and complete rejection of the ideological hegemonic structure which threatens to oppress them.

To dismiss Ai no corrida as a film about sex is an injustice. Granted, Sada and Kichi do spend the majority of their time (and film) inside four walls and each other’s body and mind and it would appear that they are incapable of any other form of communication, however, there is so much more beyond their passion. During their brief excursions in the outside world, Sada and her lover are set against Japan’s industrialisation. The sterility of the landscape of ‘new’ Japan is juxtaposed with their outdated kimono dress cut in garish colour set against the grey, sterile landscape. Children are visual representations of the future and can be seen carrying the new design of national flag, thereby indicative of the difference between militarist and imperialist Japan. A division which was in existence at the time of 1936 and, by extension, the Japan Oshima was attempting to unburden in the mid seventies at the time of production. The children throw snowballs (another indication of the politically ‘cold climate’) at the elderly – here, in the form of a male suffering from erectile disfunction. This, while depicting the cruelty of youth also symbolises how the aged are now ineffective within society, aided further by the old(er) geisha’s incontinence later on in the film.

Every individual has character duality, something Nelson Kim describes as ‘the social being and the ‘ everyday self’ and these aspects of character allow Sada and Kichi to ‘fuck their way to freedom’. This idea of sexual liberation was very much a Western ideology culminating in a sexual revolution which ran from the mid-sixties through to the mid-seventies. A movement which coincided with the production of this film and, it would seem, influenced it with other imported Western ideals including those contributing to values governing sexuality. If this modernity of the West did in fact influence Japanese values; specifically those associated with sexuality, then Oshima’s influence in depicting his iconoclastic vision of Japan clearly came from the West – namely France, a country which provided finance for the film’s production and a safe haven for editing.


In a Japan, which is seen as destructive and offering little in the way of liberation, Sada and Kichi, in their activity articulate their emancipation through their sexual desire, “[a] desire [which] mocks the notion of will and rationality”.[3] Kichi, however mocking is repression personified, walks in the opposite direction to marching soldiers in one of the film’s iconic moments. While many critics have interpreted this as rebellion, another perspective may suggest defeat. He will never be a part of the society they represent and, just like them, he is destined to die, at the hands of an oppressor no less. For that is what Sada essentially becomes, her activity and aggressiveness relegates Kichi to submissive male; provider of pleasure. He is no longer a man but sexual object, while it is the female who is the dominant and controlling one. Furthermore, the last scene in which Sada chokes him can be read as suicide; he cannot sustain or fulfil his lover’s voracious sexual appetite and his death which occurs in the midst of performing his duty causes him to surrender. Only in death is Kichi truly free.

Ai no corrida remains a timeless, highly stylised and transgressive critique of the corruptive influence of patriarchal ideology and of its implications on Japanese society. Oshima maintained that a film can only be truly political when it moves the spectator and his direction and style is certainly persuasive in altering viewer perception, even evoking attributes of the Lacanian model. In this case a piece of filmic art which is particularly acquiescent in its keiko-eiga ideal, yet at its heart displays a representation of civilisation and the oppresive hegemonic structures which allegedly keeps the human race ‘civilised’. Running deeper than its political theme, however, is a depiction of Eros and Thanatos and a fight for freedom – some may say the human condition.


[1] Kim, Nelson, Nagisa Oshima, [accessed 5.11.2006]

[2] Turim, Maureen, The Films of Oshima Nagisa: Images of a Japanese Iconoclast (California/England: University of California Press, 1998).

[3] ibid, p129.

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