The Sensualist is an erotic historical 55 minute-long film, directed by Yukio Abe back in 1991. Partly based on a novel dating back to 1682 named Life of an Amorous Man, written by Ihara Saikaku, it’s a film not just noted for its sexual content, but also for its artistry, which is reminiscent of Japanese works from that era.
The film tells of a merchant named Yonosuke, who since he was seven has had sex with an incredible amount of prostitutes. Including men and women, Yonosuke has slept with over 4,000 people in his lifetime. One of the men who works for him, Juzo, has entered into a bet that he can sleep with the noted courtesan Komurasaki on their first meeting, despite her being an incredibly cultured and someone who would normally only go for high-class men. Yonosuke decides to help Juzo win the bet by making a secret arrangement with Komurasaki, and thus Juzo ends up experiencing a night to truly remember.
Amongst the things that strike the viewer when watching this movie is the art. As stated it is designed to invoke the period it is set in. If you were to take just a still shot from the movie, particularly of Komurasaki you could argue that it does look a lot like a painting from 17th century Japan.
This art becomes even more noticeable during the sex scenes. Normally in anime, due to the strict censorship laws you cannot see genitalia and normally penises are blacked-out or blurred. However, as mentioned previously in article such as Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend (No. 49) you can get away with it by showing things that acts as a substitute for a penis. However, while Urotsukidōji used tentacles and violent imagery, The Sensualist uses more artful substitutes, like flowers coming into bloom or the head of a turtle. The Sensualist is not crude and violent. The Sensualist is the erotica to Urotsukidōji’s perversion.
The other aspect of The Sensualist worth mentioning is the history of its release in English. It was brought out on video in 1993 by a company called Western Connection. They previously released other foreign language films such as Je t’aime moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg. The Sensualist was their first anime release. They released some other cult titles and later some more mainstream works such as some of the films in the series Lupin III (No. 90), but by 1995-96 they sort of faded out.
This is perhaps not surprising given that the production values for their releases were poor. To give you an idea of how shoddy their work was, The Sensualist was a subtitled film and in the English subtitles the word “afraid” is spelt “affraid”. You end up watching it thinking: “Hang on, are these English or Welsh subtitles? It would certainly explain why the company is called Western Connection.” Not only that, but there are constant claims that everything done by the company was on the cheap. Even the fact that they did subtitles rather than dubs was due to cost, and even then many of the subtitles did not sync properly. Not only that but the video cassettes and paper covers were the cheapest available, the synopses of many of the releases were just extracts of reviews, and videos that contained two or more episodes were edited together to make it look like one episode because reportedly the BBFC charged less if a video had only one episode on it.
You would think that given the quality of the animation that another company would try to release on DVD, but sadly no-one has even been able to. This is because the producers who made the film had a massive falling out and thus refused to do anything that would help give the other producer any cash. As a result the Western Connection video is the only English language release of The Sensualist available.
Because of the rarity of the film, it being released in a pre-World Wide Web age, this means it is rather misunderstood. Many online sources, from respected anime blogs to Wikipedia (at the time of writing), wrongly credit The Sensualist as an OVA (Original Video Anime) due to its short length, but it was a proper film. Also, because it only had one release this makes The Sensualist a rare find. I knew nothing about it until I spotted a copy on sale in a shop, brought it on impulse and started researching into it. Turns out I got a rare find. Looking online reveals that a mint condition copy currently being sold on Amazon costs over £20, which is about as much as a regular anime series on DVD today.
If you see a copy buy it, for you will enjoy the beauty of the art, be baffled by what is being said, and get a slight feel of smugness that you got one of the few copies that are still hanging around.
The Sensualist is only available on second-hand video from Western Connection.