Saturday, November 24, 2007

When Sex Is Not Subversive. . . .

One of the enduring myths of modernity is that the social order depends upon repression of sex and therefore sex is a subversive act. Both states that censor sex and dissidents who defy them share this myth. The myth has inspired countless artists into sexual dissidence.

Oshima Nagisa's In the Realm of the Senses (1976), set in 1936, is perhaps the best of the genre that depicts sex as a symbolic statement against the repressive state. The pivotal scene of the film has its protagonist Kichi walk in the opposite direction to a military parade, and the end of the film has him willingly submit to his lover Sada's wish to strangle him as she has sex with him. After his death, Sada castrates Kichi, completing the reversal of the power relation in which he was initially her master. The state obliged the artist, and In the Realm of the Senses, upon its release, was censored in Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries where either the film was banned altogether or controversial scenes were cut or altered.

Araki Nobuyoshi, a photographer best known for bondage photos, takes a different tack than Oshima. In his photos, female bodies meticulously conjugated according to the exacting grammar of fetishism are part of everyday life, often surrounded by commonplace objects, a zabuton on tatami, a tea cup and saucer, things like them, shot in the same tender spirit with which he captures shitamachi [old downtown Tokyo], very unlike those of Hans Bellmer or Robert Mapplethorpe. Were Araki a woman, his work would be more fascinating than it is. Even limited by his social identity, though, his work may prove more enduring than those of artists who have played the expected role of antagonist in the aforementioned sexual myth of modernity. On the occasion of the release of the uncut version of In the Realm of the Senses, Freda Freiberg wrote:
In the mid '70s, when this film was produced, it created a storm of controversy, and encountered censorship problems in several countries, not just Japan. Its explicit treatment of sexual intercourse and its bloody castration scene outraged and disturbed viewers brought up on Hays Code morality. It was an international sensation, provoking packed houses and lively debate at the 1976 Melbourne Film Festival.

Now, 25 years later, its re-release in the original uncut version has passed almost unnoticed by viewers in Melbourne, despite the plaudits of film critics. It has become a classic, but not a cult classic apparently. That is the unkindest cut of all. The public's lack of interest serves to remind us of all those clichés about yesterday's sensation and the ephemerality of fame. ("The Unkindest Cut of All?" Senses of Cinema 12, February-March 2001)
Freiberg laments the passing of the time of sexual dissidence, but that is perhaps a welcome sign that sex has become unremarkable -- just a part of everyday life, as Araki has always insisted.

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