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In the Realm of James Ferman

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Mark Kermode | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 21 August 2009

An Oshima retrospective at the BFI recalls a revealing story about the true nature of film censorship in the UK, in this instance concerning the Japanese master's most famous and notorious masterpiece, Ai No Corrida AKA In the Realm of the Senses.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting. I'd not heard of this film or it's history. I wonder why the censor was happy to reframe the shot in question rather than reject the film entirely. Is what appears on screen more important than what we know happened during filming?

    If I submitted for publication a scientific paper, part of which described the unethical treatment of animals, any editor would reject the paper outright rather than asking for the offending section to be removed. So I wonder if there are different rules in cinema.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks for that insight into the inner works of censorship. All too often we only get to hear the stories of outright bans, hack-job cuts and edits and just negative censorship in general. It's great to learn of the pains some people with the power to just stop a film release in its tracks will go to in order to ensure that is not the final outcome.

  • Comment number 3.

    Interesting post Dr. K,
    I've always had a problem with film censorship and distribution laws.
    It seems that some films and genres can smash boundaries of what is seen to be politically correct, for example Eli Roth's 'Hostel' series, yet other films, especially those of a sexual orientation have so much difficulty passing though the censors uncut.

    Surely graphic violence and torture is more un-pc than passionate intercourse?

    I'm in total agreement with the BFI for not re-editing the reel however, editing already released material can be fatal for film.
    The pond sequence in 'Frankenstein' is a prime example of editing gone wrong.

  • Comment number 4.

    only know am i beginning to have some trust in the bbfc. at the time of the release(on video) of 'reservoir dogs' i was patronised by the bbfc and their reasons not to give it a video certificate but they gave the more shocking 'man bites dog' a release on the grounds that 'man bites dog' would have a more art house audience

    on a similar note, in the news recently they have not given some japanese horror film a certificate. anyone know why?

  • Comment number 5.

    Ref the Japanese film which has not been given a release (Grotesque?) I understand that this was because the film was basically using sexual violence for no other reason than pure titilation.

    I'm not a supporter of any kind of sensorship, but I feel sympathetic to that decision: if there is no artistic or social merit, or otherwise no point to what is being depicted beyond sadistic thrills, should a film be granted a release purely on the grounds that not to do so is censorship? It's a subjective matter of course, but to use a slightly over-worn phrase...someone has to do it.

    I was encouraged to hear that in the history of ai no corrida, James Ferman had fought hard (and worked rather creatively) to ensure the film was passed with no cuts. Does this mean that we should inherently trust the censor? Of course not, but I still feel that it is right to challenge something that uses sexual voilence as entertainment.

    For an interesting Dr. K rant on the nature of meritricious, artless use of violence, check out his 5 live review of Rambo:

  • Comment number 6.

    When I was about 16 my mum took me to the Filmhouse in Edinburgh to see a movie she'd heard about and been quite interested in. It was Ai No Corrida. I cannot remember ever being more uncomfortable in a cinema - or anywhere else for that matter. When I told a professor at university this he asked if I'd sued her yet.

    As for the 'Grotesque' movie, my feelings about the BBFC's decision are mixed. I can understand their position, but when they said that the problem with the torture and violence of 'Grotesque' is that it doesn't have the characters or narrative context of, for instance, the 'Hostel' movies, it's a bad joke. The other thing is it's already available to download on the internet (not legally, if that matters), and the BBFC's decision will simply encourage some people to go seek it out.

  • Comment number 7.

    It's ironic that news of the banning of 'Groteque' will, I imagine, mean that far more people will end up seeing it now. Certainly when I read the story I managed to quickly find a trailer to see what all the fuss is about. Though, given the films content - a fake snuff film with no real discernable plot - I guess the BBFC thought they had no other options.

    Years ago I lived five mins walk from an arts cinema and would go every week if the poster outside looked even vaguely interesting. One week it was 'Ai No Corrida' billed just as 'A Japanese Classic' which I'd never heard of before. When I walked in I was surprised to see that there far more people than would usually turn up, many not the normal sort who would turn up for an obscure foreign language film. It was a few minutes into the film when I realised why...

  • Comment number 8.

    The difficulty with the whole issue is that it is founded on something inherently subjective: what do we find 'offensive'.

    I have always been of the opinion that everyone basically has the right to 'be offended' by something. The mere fact that I may be offended by a movie (or for that matter, someone else's lifestyle or opinions) doesn't mean that those things should be censored purely so that I won't be bothered by them. What offends me may not offend someone else. What really bothers me is the assumption that someone else is better equipped, either intellectually or morally, to make that decision on my behalf.

    So how do you get away from the issue of subjectivity? Does that take us back to the question of whether watching something violent/disturbing, etc would have a 'corrupting influence' on the viewer? Could a movie really have such an effect?

    Or is it simply a matter of where a society sets it's benchmark for what is and is not acceptable?

    I don't think there is a clear answer to this. It's right to challenge censorship (and artistic censorship, like any other censorship, is an attempt to limit free thought & expression) but does that mean that we don't want any form of oversight and judgement applied to what is released for broad public consumption?

    We don't get the luxury of a straightforward answer here. I think the only practical compromise is to regularly challenge the basis on which the censor's decisions are made...there can never be a hard & fast ruling on what is/is not acceptable, but we do need to ensure that filmmakers and audiences continue to have the opportunity to challenge and debate the issue....even if it's on a case-by-case basis.

  • Comment number 9.

    I always felt it was a paradox of censorship (in this country at least) that most people are, one would assume, far more likely to see an erect penis in real life than a mutilated body - and yet it is the former that is still so often forbidden.

  • Comment number 10.

    As well as infringing copyright and intellectual property laws by downloading Grotesque it is also available to import quite legally from Japan and other territories.

    As much as I’m a gore hound, I like a bit of a plot, and although Grotesque lacks one it kept me engaged, although very little happens in between dismemberment's it’s strangely watchable, thanks to fluid camera work and classical music. This is a quality that’s rare yet is particularly prevalent in Japanese films, especially the work of Takashi Miike to which writer/director Kôji Shiraishi surely owes a massive debt.

    Reminiscent of the infamous Guinea Pig films of the eighties the set design and lighting is visually similar to more recent Saw and (pitiful) Hostel films. It has little in common with the so called Torture Porn genre, apart from torture and porn, dispensing with superfluous and distracting plot and concentrating on the serious business of sexually abusing and eviscerating attractive young people.

    Technically it’s as near perfect as a low budget film can be. Make up effects are excellent and convincing, the single set is very detailed but above all the lighting and camera work are excellent. I was impressed at the lack of shaky hand held camera work, instead there are smooth steadicam and boom shots, reminiscent of Argento and Carpenter. Sound design is over the top in places, unnecessarily punctuating minor actions, I couldn’t work out if it was trying to make a point or if it had just been poorly mixed.

    Key to the success of the film is the performances of the three actors, which are uniformly excellent and completely unselfconscious despite the difficult subject matter. It would be hard to single out any one of them, although Shigeo Ôsako is wonderfully understated as the cold, emotionless tormentor.

    My interpretation of Grotesque is that is about indomitable human spirit, similar to Martyrs but without the philosophy, understated and totally stripped down of narrative bells and whistles. Yes, it is a gore film and a particularly nasty one at that, but I felt it had more to offer than Indiewood produced torture porn despite having none of the narrative. Perhaps most bizarrely I found it strangely uplifting despite the bleakness of the subject matter, to be honest it is a truly awesome little film.

    It’s a pity (but unsurprising) that the BBFC don’t see it the same way and although I’ve not seen Antichrist it seems like a bit of double standard to ban one sexually and violently explicit, possibly misogynistic but very stylish, well put together and brilliantly acted film for another. Of course I could be completely wrong and in fact it is just a mean spirited sexist gore film, either way it’s required viewing for horror/gore fans.


  • Comment number 11.

    I can't believe from all the stories I've heard about the BBFC that Von Trier's Antichrist wasn't banned or overly censored (though i controversially like the film). Plus, is The Devil's released in it's entirety yet - missing/exempt scenes, and uncensored??? Because if Antichrist can be passed by the BBFC, the The Devils can!
    Recently I've also watched Tarantino's back-catalogue before I go and see Inglourious Basterds. I could be mistaken, but I seem to remember there was a big fuss over the fight scenes between the crazy 88 and Uma Thurman, and on my copy the sequence turns to black and white until the battle sequence finishes. The BBFC must have had a hand in that bit of censorship surely? I seem to remember Tarantino saying that he was initially annoyed that they wanted to censor the scene, and then he edited it by turning to black and white and he thought it was more affective.

  • Comment number 12.

    Having seen 'In the Realm of the Senses' on DVD several years I've got to say (like many films that have been banned over the years; in part or in total) I can't see what was the all the fuss was about. Not that the sex scenes aren't strong or that it's history isn't interesting, but just that the film itself isn't the masterpiece that many make it out to be. Worth watching once? yes, I'd still recommend it, but seriously, it's very overated.

  • Comment number 13.

    The thing I have issue with is the torture and killing of animals in films such as Cannibal Holocaust. Now it's one thing to cut these sequences out but surely the entire film should be banned? Cutting these scenes out doesn't change the fact that animals were still killed for the purpose's of the movie. Surely who wouldn't cut the sequences of people dying out of a snuff film and release the rest? Whats the difference?

    I still refuse to watch Cannibal Holocaust because of this issue and it always irritates me slightly when the good doctor recommends it.

  • Comment number 14.

  • Comment number 15.

    Hi DaveB86, just curious to know, would you include something like the slaughter of the bull in Apocalypse Now in that category?

    Admittedly, that was part of an actual tribal ritual, but would you say that including it in the film is exploitative?

  • Comment number 16.

    Having watched Cannibal Holocaust recently, I don't think it's a good film. With the exception of the makeup effects, there's not much to recommend it, it's poorly written, badly shot and edited and amateurishly acted not to mention boring.

    The turtle sequence is overlong and pointless and I think it highlights Deodato's lack of faith in the rest of the material to shock. He was most certainly the runt of the litter of notable Italian horror directors from the seventies especially compared to Fulci and Argento, both of whom have fallen foul of the BBFC on more than one occasion.

  • Comment number 17.

    Regarding Apocalypse Now. People have pointed this out to me before when I've mentioned Cannibal Holocaust and it's a tricky one.

    On the one hand it does show an animal being killed onscreen. However my problem with Cannibal Holocaust is that they killed animals for the purposes of the film, whereas in Apocalypse Now they filmed an event that would have taken place independently of the film anyway. I think that does excuse it and the fact that it wasn't done in bad taste and actually has a thematic purpose does justify it.

  • Comment number 18.

    I would be interested to hear Mark's opinion of Grotesque. I quite like japanese horror films, they tend to push the boundaries more than American films (hence the countless remakes). I also like a good plot though, which apparently this film lacks. I am quite tempted to check out the film out of curiosity.

    So what I want to know is this; is the film actually worth seeing? Is the BBFC's evaluation accurate, or are they overreacting?

  • Comment number 19.

    junkiecosmonaut - The BBFC's explanation for refusing a certificate to Grotesque is explained in full on their website - - under 'News', in the Press section.

    What I find interesting about this Ai No Corrida story is that it's a side of the BBFC that people rarely appreciate, in that they were actually trying to get something seen in as complete a form as possible. I think everyone sees them as some kind of watchdog that tells us what we can and can't watch, but actually if you read their classification explanations, and their guidelines, and a bit about their processes, what they're often trying to do is help film makers to get their film seen by the intended audience. Hence they'll offer advice on how to achieve a certain certificate. Most of what they cut nowdays, as is the case with Ai No Corrida, is based on legal requirements.

    There is another interesting point that does tie in with Grotesque somewhat. James Ferman wanted to help get Ai No Corrida seen because he liked the film, so in a way he was saying that because it was a good film it deserved to be seen and not cut or banned. I am not so sure he would have gone to so much effort had he not cared for the film himself. Furthermore, the explanation for cutting or banning films like Grotesue, or NF713, is generally that the offending violence is not justified artistically. I don't know how the makers of these films intended the works exactly, although the makers of NF713 apparently claim it was not intended as a 'sex work', despite how the BBFC took it. If that's the case, then I guess you could say they failed in their intentions. It's almost as if, in the same way that Mark said of the latest Rambo film that the BBFC's explanation was pretty much calling the film morally bankrupt, by rejection a film the BBFC are pretty much declaring it artistically bankrupt, or at least that you have to be a pretty inept film-maker to get your film banned.

  • Comment number 20.

    Didn't David Cronenberg anticipate movies like 'Grotesque' when he made Videodrome?

    Death to narrative cinema. Long live the new flesh.

  • Comment number 21.

    Just wondering what Mark made of the Avatar trailer, and also all the critisism of it.

    Personally, i think it looks like a million other things, and the fact that it's in 3D means absolutely nothing to me. What i find strange, however, is the amount of hype around the film, with people like James Cameron, and Empire magazine (shudder) stating that it's going to change cinema forever. The last film that had these claims made about it was The Matrix Reloaded, which, it turned out, used the same techniques, yet again, only too frequently and not as well.

    Also, the critisisms of the film seem to revolve around how the CGI doesn't look 'photo realistic', but more like a video game. Well you know what looks really really real? Real stuff! Let's stop with all this uninvolving, uncharacteristic, CGI crap, and get back to using real people and real objects. I think 3D films like Avatar are ruining cinema and making it into little more than a fairground ride.

    And anyway, when did James Cameron become this amazing cinematic visionary? Sure, he made the Terminator films and Aliens, which are a lot of fun, and Titanic is the most successful film of all time (because 14 year old girls thought Leo looked gorgeous and went back time after time to gaze at his beautiful little androgynous face). But, come on, he's hardly Stanley Kubrick, and all his films are merely entertaining technological achievements, rather than great films. Lets stop all the hype, and get back to making good films, with interesting characters and plots (in 2D please).

  • Comment number 22.

    I'm avoiding everything to do with Avatar as much as I can. Not because I'm not interested - I'll see it first day it comes out - but because it's not out for another four months. Between now and December 18 there's a vast amount of other stuff to see and do, and in any case that much hype for that much time is going to get very boring, very quickly.

    I'm more interested in Dr Kermode's opinion on the perception shift in 3D. So far, with Ice Age 3 and My Bloody Valentine and so forth, they've been "3D In Selected Cinemas". But with this week's new Final Destination, the posters clearly say it's in 3D, but "2D In Selected Cinemas". Does this mean that the distributors have been actively choosing which cities DON'T get the full immersive (or pointy) effect? It's never been "selected" anyway - it's down to whether the cinema has a screen and projector that can show 3D films - so the idea that some marketing bod is sitting in an office deciding that Milton Keynes can have the 3D print but Hammersmith have to make do with the plain 2D version is rubbish. But now they're "selecting" which ones get short shrift and the 3D is now the default position.

  • Comment number 23.

    Amusingly enough, it turns out any and all prosecutions under the Video Recordings Act are invalid...

    Looks like you'll be able to keep your copy of Grotesque for the time being...

  • Comment number 24.

    Mark Kermode: Stealing his ideas for podcasts from Sight & Sound magazine since...a certain amount of time ago.

  • Comment number 25.

    I can't help thinking the original bit of rescoping would be much easier with today's digital technology than it was when the movie was originally released. I guess there must have been some reason not to do the same thing again.


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