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  • Make Love Not War: Vengeance for Women Under Japanese Imperialism in Cinema
  • Quatoyiah Murry

In her book Sex and Radical Cinema, Carol Siegel reflects on how free love during the height of the sexual revolution in America was often depicted in film as an opposing force to a love of war (Seigel, 2015, p. 99). Films today don’t often use lovemaking as an antiwar activity as Seigel indicated, but a few have slipped through the cracks, managing to use sex as a revolutionary act in defiance of warfare. Made in different eras from two different countries and perspectives, but both focusing on the same period of war and its resulting oppression of women, Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Park Chanwook’s The Handmaiden (2016), set in Japan and in Japan-occupied Korea, respectively, use sex, rather than traditional masculine action, as “an essential tool” to advance their plots, both of which focus on women under the patriarchal rule of the Empire of Japan (Tolentino, 2016).

In the Realm of the Senses and The Handmaiden are erotic stories set during the 1930s, when Japanese imperialism was at its pinnacle. While both films were lauded upon their release, some critics have argued against their use of graphic sexuality and, in some cases, have charged the films (particularly Park’s) with objectifying its female leads (Kim, 2019, p. 6). But the two films are not so easily reduced. For one thing, especially in their use of mise-en-scène, the directors capture sexual activity in distinct—and distinctive—ways, in order to present narratives of emotional development that are driven by sex, as opposed to presenting sex that is driven merely by its power to titillate. The power dynamic is, in fact, exactly the opposite of standard pornography. Indeed, the sexual narratives in both films enact carefully structured attempts to recognize the social and political histories of misogyny. In each film, subversively resilient female characters are given the power to experience pleasure and autonomy through the very medium misogynistically reserved for men: sex. By turning sex upside down as an instrument of masculine agency, In the Realm of the Senses and The Handmaiden not only serve as feminist revenge dramas against patriarchy but serve as deliberately explicit demands for historical awareness (Hayes, 2016).

In 1910, Japan’s annexation of Korea resulted in a 35-year occupation of the peninsula under the Empire of Japan. Prior to the Meiji restoration, sex work was a tactical option for poor, rural women as Japan entered the global economy (Mihalopoulos, 2016, p. 37). However, prostitutes were soon seen as a national disgrace with Japan’s rise in power (Mihalopoulos, 2016, p. 127) leading to poor treatment and conditions of living for these women. The Empire of Japan and its citizens shunned the Japanese women sold into sex slavery then trafficked across Asia known as karayuki-san, as well as the women from occupied territories forced into sex work by the Japanese Imperial Army known as “comfort women,” a practice that continued until the end of the Great Power’s reign in 1945. Bill Mihalopoulos sought to retell the history of these women without “reducing their lives to one of abject domination and exploitation” (Mihalopoulos, 2016, p. 16). It is my assessment that both In the Realm of the Senses and The Handmaiden managed to do the same by reflecting the apex of Japan’s entry into war through strong female characters who find their escape through consensual sexual activity synonymous with love (Seigel, 2015, p. 103). Both films prove to be anti-war statements in the process. [End Page 4]

Nagisa Ôshima released In the Realm of the Senses in 1976, his most controversial work to date. Set in 1936 and based on the real-life case of Sada Abe, In the Realm of the Senses is an erotic film centered on the prostitute and former geisha and her torrid affair with Kichi Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), the married owner of an inn where Sada (Eiko Matsuda) begins working. The couple’s affair turns into obsession, completely engulfing both to the point that they become mentally unhinged, breaking with...