The Censors Finally "Pull Back" On Pulp Fiction And In The Realm Of The Senses

Amongst the multitude of options in censoring a film, besides the obvious removal of footage or the re-dubbing of dialogue, is the use of image cropping or artificial zooming. A shot can be re-framed throughout to remove part of the original information, or it might be subject to a "Ken Burns" style push-in that changes the framing of the shot as it goes on.

These particular acts of censorship tend to be less well discussed than cutting out of scenes or shots, and when they are, they're often referred to as cuts anyway, and in a sense, that's absolutely right – the film is just being cut around the edges, not along its run time.

Just this year, the BBFC have waived two previous "video edits" of this kind, and for films released this month on Blu-ray. One is a relatively minor change in Pulp Fiction; the other a really quite controversial moment in Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm of the Senses.

Senses is a story of doomed lust, a period film filled with sweat and grunting and uncensored, unsimulated sex. It tells a fictional story based upon the true case of Sada Abe, a woman who asphyxiated her lover during erotic pursuits, then kept a rather personal trophy of their relationship…

This film has had quite a textured history with the BBFC. Here are the basics of its "early years":

  • The film was made in 1976 and immediately ran into trouble with censors. It was seized at customs in the US, and in the UK, the BBFC declared that "major cuts" to various scenes of explicit sex would be needed in order for even an X-certificate to be awarded.
  • In 1977, the Obscene Publications Act was published in the UK. Under these rules, the legal "obscenity" of a film would be judged on the work as a whole. Therefore, if a film could be said to have artistic merit as a complete piece, it would not be subject to charge. At this point, James Ferman, head of the BBFC decided that Senses could play, yet just in members only cinema clubs.
  • But one scene was removed. This showed the female lead reaching out and in anger tugging on the penis of a young toddler in her care. You can see very clearly in the film that the act has not been faked, and the child runs off, crying. The act has, undoubtedly, hurt him or caused him distress. Under the Protection of Children Act, this was clearly defined as child abuse.
  • In 1982, the film was released on VHS – this was before home video releases were subject to BBFC scrutiny. I have not been able to clarify if the film was cut at all, but if it was, only the single scene detailed above had been removed. The several scenes of explicit sexual acts between the adult cast remained intact.
  • The Video Recordings Act of 1984 saw copies of the film cleared from the shelves.

And so it was, for the rest of the 1980s, the film playing only in cinema clubs, and then only in a censored form.

But then the BFI gave the film a release in 1991, under an 18 certificate from the BBFC. This was the first mainstream release of the film in almost a decade. Any cinema that wished to book this version could do so, and before long, the BFI made a home video version available also. At last, for these releases, every scene in the film was included.

Yet, in this version, the film was still "cut".

The BFI were releasing a version with just one edit, made to the scene with the child. Without deleting the scene, they were looking to obscure its content.

The BBFC had been advised that they need only concern themselves with "visual indecency", not "narrative indecency" – that which is shown but not what it might imply. As such, they were requesting a very specific alteration. Here's how that edit was recorded on the BBFC database:

Passed with some optical reframing in accordance with the Protection of Children Act 1978.

What you see on screen is the full length of the contentious shot, but with the image changing along the way, approximately as though the camera was performing a zoom.

At the moment the woman grabs the little boy's penis, the action occurs just outside of the frame. The meaning of the action is still pretty clear, but the censoring effect is noticeable and the klutzy reframing is, to say the least, aesthetically imperfect.

I always found this a confusing "fix". The child was not somehow retroactively "de-harmed" by this edit, and the implications of the scene remained the same. The only positive result, as far as I could determine, is that the image of a child being abused was now no longer explicit and might not, I suppose, have appeal for audiences looking to see such things. If, indeed, such an audience would go looking to films like this in the first place.

Two decades passed for which this "cut" version was the only one for supply in the UK. Meanwhile, of course, genuinely uncut versions were being made available in other countries, including the disc issued as part of the Criterion Collection. It did not take collectors much effort at all to import and play intact edits of the film.

In the summer, Studio Canal resubmitted the film for their new Blu-ray release, and much to my surprise, were granted an 18 certificate for an entirely unedited version. The BBFC database records the decision thus:

Uncut version. Previous cut (by optical reframing) waived.

It's worth noting that the Protection of Children Act of 1978 has not changed, only its interpretation.

We might argue for hours about how and why the film has now received an uncensored release in the UK, and even if this is a good thing. We could kick the ball back and forth in respect of this decision somehow setting a precedent for images of actual child abuse in commercial film releases.

The cut originally made to Pulp Fiction employes the same "optical reframing" technique. A fully unedited version has now been issued on Blu-ray, and it was noted by the BBFC thus:

Previous video cut waived

Originally, a shot of a needle entering a vein to administer heroin had been obscured, and now the image is just as Tarantino had originally delivered it. There's no more hiding from this mechanical reality of heroin abuse. The BBFC think we have grown up sufficiently in the last 18 years to be able to handle this one.

The shot, I'm sure, never contained any real potential to harm, and the original act of censorship was an absurd one. There was some popular suggestion that with the footage intact, the film could function as a manual for drug use, but that's no more true than In The Realm of the Senses having application, or indeed being needed, as a how-to guide for child abusers.

Now both of these films have been made available as the filmmakers had intended to release them,* and it's up to adult viewers to decide if they would like to watch them, and then how they feel about the scenes presented.

It will always be unfortunate that this child was treated in this way, and I have never been comfortable when viewing the scene, or indeed anticipating it or discussing it. I'm not somebody who considers censorship to be an option in the arts, though I do believe, truthfully and honestly, that a genuine misdemeanor was committed during the filming of In The Realm of the Senses.

Nonetheless, Oshima's film remains a vivid realisation of a powerful story, and the film is a great success in overpowering the audience. The blend of superficially erotic images and morbidly entrancing sado-masochism left me feeling like I'd just been a voyeur onto another person's deepest fantasy and found it to be a nightmare. There are political images in the film, and I strived to feel their relevance to the main "lust affair" story, but could only really intellectualise the ties – again, I felt like I was looking in, but never breaking in.

I believe this was likely the intent. Well played, Oshima. You froze me out but I couldn't look away.

In The Realm of the Senses is available in the UK as a Blu-ray and DVD double packright now. The Blu-ray is Region B locked and the DVD is region 2 PAL.

*This film is a shorter edit that Oshima's personal director's cut, which was the one released, albeit censored, 1991. This shorter version was arrived at when six scenes were removed at the producer, Anatole Dauman's request, and with Oshima's agreement. None of the scenes were contentious for the BBFC, though it has been said that the film suffers for them being lost. I have never seen them.