When I started at college, I joined the Film Society and was very quickly on the committee, which was still trying to deal with the backlash from the year before when some bright spark had come up with the genius idea of screening AI NO CORRIDA (IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES) (1976), Oshima’s stunning re-telling of an incident in 1930s Japan of an obsessional love affair that ends with a penis being cut off. Due to its explicit content, the film did not have a certificate, therefore could only be exhibited by Film Societies. It was a masterstroke, because everyone in the college and the local community joined the society to see it. The Student Union and the college authorities were censorious in their response afterwards. The Women’s Sec. was horrified by the pornographic subjection of women was clearly a male rape fantasy and conducted a campaign to figuratively re-enact the offending scene on the all-male committee. The college was concerned that the depiction of a woman laying a hard-boiled egg from her fanny, was not an appropriate when displayed in the rarified educational establishment that it aspired to become.
I did not see the film until a couple of years later when it was finally granted certification and a new print distributed to the independent cinemas. There was a queue for the Cornerhouse with couples keen to see the film that had been denied to western audiences for so long. By the end of the film, half of them had left, usually with the woman storming up the aisle and the male partner walking backwards after them.
It is a pity that this reputation has dominated the reception of the film. The controversy was not confined to Ormskirk and Manchester, it was refused a screening at the 1977 New York Film festival. It is a powerful film about obsessional desire and its intensity creates a transcendence that is utterly consuming for the audience as much as the characters. What I love about Oshima is his audacious layering of themes and challenging the mores of Japanese society; people are never just people in his films, they represent the inequalities of power (between men and women) and the spiritual hold of the changing seasons on the rhythms of human relationships.
GOHATTO is his last film and came after a long period of silence brought on by serious illness, he has had two strokes since so is unlikely to produce any further . It picks up similar themes to AI NO CORRIDA as it concerns the self destructive nature of love. Life within the closed community of a Shinsengumi, elite squad of samurai police, who are defending the Shoguns against reformation in the bakumatsu era in the mid-19th century, is intense and impotent: they are loyal, believe in the ethic of the esprit de corps, where personal feelings are repressed for the sake of the team. A young, attractive swordsman, Kano, is brought into the group, his attractiveness creates a tension, even among the high command. The different factions within the community are trying to win his affections, overlooked by a splendidly dispassionate Vice-Commander, Takeshi Kitano at his most enigmatic, his stillness interrupted by his characteristic tick. The story moves glacially, creating an ‘other-worldliness’ through its stasis – nothing changes – broken only by brilliantly choreographed fight sequences.
Oshima is the master of transgressive cinema and GOHATTO proves at the end of his career he had not lost his ability to create a self contained microcosm of society only the subvert and challenge its norms.
Thankfully, Dirk’s film society does not have the same censorious regime as the one at college, and it was screened at the den last year without any protests. Dom-Dirk thought it was ok. He’s wrong – it’s brilliant.