“… living only for the moment, savouring the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking sake, and diverting oneself just in floating, unconcerned by the prospect of imminent poverty, buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.”
So wrote Asai Ryoi in his novel of 1661, Ukiyo monogatari (Tales of the Floating World) words that would become the defining principle of the floating world. I can’t think of a better contemporary manifestation of that sentiment or indeed of that environment than the 1976 film Ai no Corrida, (In the Realm of the Senses), by the outstanding Japanese film maker Nagisa Oshima. I ran across a DVD of the movie recently, having more or less forgotten about it and remembered seeing the premiere of the film in Paris in the year of its release. I have always ascribed my lifelong interest in ukiyo-e (or prints of the floating world) to the vast show, The Great Japan Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 1981. Revisiting Ai no Corrida inclines me to think that this and subsequent Japanese movies had an equal if not greater influence.
It’s not really about the sex… the film was banned in Japan, (although filmed there, the undeveloped negatives were shipped to France under a French – Japanese production agreement), banned and then cut heavily in England, banned in America and banned in Germany. Video release was delayed until 2000 and even now it is difficult or expensive to obtain an uncut version… more than the explicit sex, it is the relentless atmosphere of languorous, obsessive, dolorous pleasure that permeates the entire 108 minutes. There are almost no scenes at all that do not include explicit and lengthy depictions of unsimulated intercourse, oral sex or nudity… the sets are all Edo style Japanese rooms with sliding doors, tatami mats and formal, teahouse decorations and the claustrophobic interiors (and exterior shots) are heavy with the presence of the frantic and exhausted lovers and their suicidal pursuit of sexual pleasure and ultimately failed ambition of complete bodily and spiritual unity.
The plot is disarmingly simple and based on a real event that occurred in Tokyo in 1936. Sada Abe works as a maid in an hotel. The owner, Kichizo Ishida, seduces her and they embark on an affair. Ishida leaves his wife and the two lovers risk losing everything in order to pursue their increasingly extreme relationship. Their obsession is such that they start to strangle each other whilst having sex. Realising that their affair has nowhere else to go, Sada strangles Ichida and severs his penis with his knife. She was discovered wandering through the streets holding his penis, having written “Sada Kichi the two of us forever” in blood on his chest. This summary of course reads exactly like a more lurid account of a traditional kabuki play, with which it shares very many similarities.
Political and social change in Japan at the close of the eighteenth century led to greater urbanisation and the rapid growth of cities like Edo (Tokyo). The role of women changed as a consequence and there developed a discernible anxiety in popular gender politics, climaxing in the late nineteenth century. The greatest art of the period – the woodblock print – reflects this anxiety, with whole genres of print being given over to strong women; hence series of prints with titles such as 36 Good and Evil Beauties (right) by Kunichika. The powerful woman had for a long time been a trope of Japanese literature: the Castle Toppler, as she was known, typified the strong, ambitious women who had the power to bring down whole dynasties with their beauty. The genre reached a peak at the beginning of the last century with a literature devoted to dofuku or “poison women”. Building on legendary female bandits (below left) this genre flourished, popularising the confessions of female criminals and anarchists, of which there were surprisingly a large number.
What is fascinating about the politics of the movie (and the events), is that Sada takes the lead at nearly every turn. Whilst it is Ishida who seduces Sada, thereafter it is Sada who leads the events to their tragic finale. The prototype for the affair exists everywhere in nineteenth century Japanese culture. The most obvious link to the past lies in Sada’s eventual confession: in it she explains that she had been to the kabuki theatre on May 9, 1936, attending a play in which a geisha attacks her lover with a large knife, after which she decided to threaten Ishida with a knife at their next meeting. It seems very likely that the play that Sama went to see was Ichikawa Sansho’s revival of the lost play Uwanari (pictured below right) that played at the Kabukiza from April through May of that year. The play looks at the controversial subject of a man taking a second wife or mistress (uwanari is literally later wife). Custom allowed the first wife to revenge herself on the newcomer if her husband became too attached – this was called uwanari-uchi. Some cases of uwanari-uchi ended in the victory of the later wife and humiliation for the older one. Such themes would have played out in Sada’s mind as her overpowering jealousy towards Ishida overcame her.
“I pulled the kitchen knife out of my bag and threatened him as had been done in the play I had seen, saying, ‘Kichi, you wore that kimono just to please one of your favorite customers. You bastard, I’ll kill you for that.’ Ishida was startled and drew away a little, but he seemed delighted with it all…”
Ironically, this is the very reason that kabuki theatre had been so stringently censored and for so long. Shinju, or double suicides, (Sada was planning suicide at the point of her arrest) were a distinctive social problem in Japan. Kabuki dramas responded rapidly to new trends and to sensational news stories and there was a whole genre – shinjumono – devoted to these events. The government was obliged during periodic epidemics of shinju to close down theatres that were seen to encourage copycat suicides. It would seem therefore that Sada’s actions were inspired by the kabuki play she had attended and that her tragic life story – one of family shame, prostitution and doomed love ending in death – is almost a compendium of contemporary and historic kabuki dramas and woodblock prints.
But it is not all tragedy. Sada was arrested but such was the public sympathy for her and despite the crippling anxiety of the authorities to the threat of “poison women”, she was only given a six year sentence. Thereafter she lived a quiet life, occasionally appearing in public but ending her days in a monastery, where in 1975, Oshima eventually tracked her down. Despite the lurid murder, the attempted suicide and the explicit sex, the film manages to embody so much that is present in the great art of Japan in the nineteenth century. Certainly, the sex scenes are redolent of the great shunga prints of the period, but it is the sense of it… the heavy, opium laden air itself that transports one to a foggy dream of indulgence that somewhere you think you might once have had.