I doubt many films are done better service by their titles than 1976's In the Realm of the Senses, a film with at least three extraordinarily potent titles. "In the Realm of the Senses" aptly describes this true story of the famous (only sometimes infamous) Sada Abe who lived for sexual pleasure, the film portraying a period of her existence thoroughly consumed by her sexual relationship with Kichizo Ishida. The French title--the Japanese film was released through France to get around Japanese censorship--is L'Empire des sens, a reference to a French book on Japan called L'Empire des signes. But most intriguing to me is the original Japanese title, 愛のコリーダ(Ai no Corrida). "Ai" means love, "no" basically means "of" or "for". "Corrida" is spelled in katakana, meaning it's not a Japanese word. It's a Spanish word literally meaning to run but used to refer to bullfighting. Yet it sounds similar to the Japanese word "korita" (凝りた), the past tense version of "koru" (凝る), a verb both meaning to obsess and used to refer to stiffening neck muscles. With three words, the title describes the themes, subtext, and surface of this fascinating film.
In 1936, Sada Abe was sentenced to just six years in prison (and served only five) for strangling her lover to death and cutting off his genitals. Wikipedia has this photograph from shortly after her arrest.
Abe was celebrated as a figure of sexual liberation in Japan. The film mentions this only briefly but we can see something of this public attitude in the reactions the two lovers are met with by the frequent witnesses of their coitus.
A woman tending a garden nearby when Sada abruptly mounts Kichi only smiles and tells them how she feels more energetic just being around them. But the two mostly carry out their love making in hotel rooms--sometimes in the hotel owned by Kichi where Sada was working as a waitress when he met her, later mostly in a series of geisha houses. Only once does a waitress speak disparagingly of them, telling them how geisha are refusing to entertain them because of their reputation. Sada becomes furious and accuses the woman of lying, of ascribing what is only her own opinion to others. Almost immediately we see Sada may be right when an elderly geisha shows up and immediately praises Kichi's virility.
To say that the film features unsimulated sex is something of an understatement. We see penetration more than once as well as oral sex. The film is not porn, the actors are always in character. It's not even an exploitation film. There is some genuinely beautiful photography in 1970s exploitation films--and Ai no Corrida is certainly well shot. And the sex between Sada and Kichi is not implicitly condemned by the film. They're two attractive people and yet the focus is on something subtler. The sex is mainly just the context, however explicit it is.
Eiko Matsuda plays Abe as sort of a junkie, enraptured but more defined by insatiable need. Tatsuya Fuji plays Kichi rather cool, laid back (often literally) and bemused by Sada's insatiability. He remarks that she always seems to be wet and she replies that it's not a physical illness--she'd had a doctor examine her and he'd told her she simply had an extraordinary libido. But the film rather unmistakably portrays the effects of a disease that's slowly pulling the two down, making them negligent of everything else in their lives.
Eventually the two begin to indulge in erotic asphyxiation. After several rounds of this, when Kichi tells Sada not to stop next time because it's too painful afterwards, there's a real sadness to it. It's something Abe said Ishida actually said in real life before the fatal strangulation--the fact that she desired the death penalty afterward suggests she may have been telling the truth. She later reflected that Ishida might have been joking. Portrayed in the film as a man with an ironic sense of humour, when Kichi delivers the line it seems as though it was meant as a joke that quietly, actually expressed the truth.