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Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2000


A love neither time nor censors could kill

Films have a way of losing their buzz, if not their value. Say what you want about the beauty and mystery of "2001: A Space Odyssey," the special effects that blew hippie minds in 1968 are not going to make anyone drop their popcorn in the mall cinemas of 2000.Three decades of technical innovations have taken us to places that Stanley Kubrick could have only imagined. (They've also taken us to "Star Wars: Episode One," but whatever.)

"Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses)," the 1976 Nagisa Oshima film about a maid who strangled her master in the throes of passion, pushed the boundaries of the erotic far past what Japanese authorities of the time were willing to accept. Oshima, rightly, disowned the butchered version that was released here -- though its intact foreign version came to be regarded as his masterpiece.

Now a new director's cut is in the theaters, using a print imported from France, with Oshima's blessing and the stamp of approval of both the customs authorities and Eirin, the Japanese film industry self-censorship body. Called "Ai no Corrida 2000," it restores five minutes of cuts from the original Japanese release. It also, regrettably, uses digital masking in many scenes, albeit with more subtlety than was possible in 1976.

This residual prudery, in the country with the largest sex industry on the planet, would be laughable if it weren't pathetic. Who do the censors think they are protecting? The college students in the convenience stores thumbing through magazines that are little more than prostitution catalogs? The salarymen browsing at the hundreds of Japan-based porno sites on the Web?

A more pertinent question, however, is whether all this change has reduced the film to an erotic period piece -- the Japanese equivalent of "Debbie Does Dallas." The answer, I think, is "no." Most films that break new artistic ground, while stirring up profitable controversy, are followed by dozens of imitators. "Ai no Corrida," an unprecedented marriage of high artistic purpose and explicit eroticism, has spawned very little indeed. Several directors, such as France's Catherine Breillat with her 1999 succes de scandal "Romance," have claimed Oshima as an inspiration, but the trend of the world film industry has been in the opposite direction, toward a strict division between hardcore porn that reduces its characters to their physical traits and appetites, and mainstream cinema that cloaks sex in tastefully lit euphemism.

The reasons for this trend range from the fear of the erotic spawned by the AIDS pandemic to the New Puritanism that looks for exploitation under every on-screen bed and usually finds it. For Hollywood a C-17 or, increasingly, an R rating carries an unacceptable risk of box office failure -- thus the growing number of Hollywood films that may be packed with profanity and violence, but place limits on Eros so they can sell tickets to 12-year-olds.

Oshima would have no such nonsense -- "Ai no Corrida" is the product of an aristocratic sensibility that regards the bourgeois worship of profits and propriety as contemptible. "The truth and nothing but the truth" is Oshima's cry -- and it still resounds a quarter of a century later.

The story is based on the tabloid sensation of 1936, the fatal love affair of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), a former geisha turned maid, and Kichizo Yoshida (Tatsuya Fuji), the owner of the Tokyo ryotei (Japanese-style restaurant) at which she worked. Abandoning his wife and his business, Kichizo gave himself up to two weeks of dissipation with Sada at a nearby inn, which climaxed in sadomasochistic love games -- and his strangulation. Sada then severed his penis and kept it as a love token for four days, until her arrest by the police.

The film plunges directly into this story, with Sada, as the newly hired maid, surprising Kichizo and his wife in the act of making love and gazing with unabashed fascination. Meanwhile, it doesn't take long for Kichizo to figure out what Sada is thinking and how he can take advantage of it. With these two, it's lust at first sight -- and that's the way it stays. Sada is insatiable and Kichizo, though past 40, indefatigable.

From this point the film could have easily degenerated into lubricious farce, but Oshima makes it clear that Sada is not simply playing sexual games, but feeding a dangerous hunger that has no limits. Though amused by this intensity, Kichizo also finds himself swept away by it. A sensualist with seemingly not a care in the world , he is, we come to see, tired of his life, which is clouded by the militarism that has everywhere suppressed Eros, exalted Thanatos. When he leaves the ryotei for an extended debauch with Sada, he is not only escaping, but protesting, though there is not a political bone in his body. He and Sada are not only testing physical and psychological limits, but resisting a social order that condemns their actions and their very being.

Not much of this is articulated; Oshima wisely hints instead of explains, while keeping the focus on the intimacies of his two protagonists. Here lies the real value of the film -- not in its faded rebellion against the stale conventions of Japanese erotic cinema, not in its outdated model of sexual liberation, but in the way it reveals how human beings truly behave in throes of passion, in the grip of fixation. In movies these things are usually hidden behind carefully arranged sheets, either literal or metaphorical. Oshima shows us all the moving parts and we recognize ourselves, for better or worse.

It took courage for Fuji and Matsuda to make this film, but especially for Matsuda, who has all but disappeared since its release. The fact that there is nothing pornographic about her performance, that it shines with a purity of intent and brilliance of execution, apparently meant nothing to the Japanese film industry. She had crossed a line that few actresses, here or elsewhere, ever recross. The crash and burn of her career is another big reason why "Ai no Corrida" has had so few imitators. Truth, as John Keats wrote, may be beauty, but naked truth can be fatal, in more ways than one.

Every Sunday from Dec. 24 the print with English subtitles will be shown at 7:45 p.m and 10:20 p.m. at Cine Amuse East/West.

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