The international success of Nagisa Oshima’s controversial and sexually confrontational 1974 film “In the Realm of the Senses” led to a great sense of expectation when the Japanese director teamed up once again with the same noted French producer Anatole Dauman for his big follow-up “Empire of Passion”. The fact that the two works share similar titles (in France, the first of the two was known as “Empire of the Senses”) and that their subject matter appears to embody the same concerns, might account for how little attention the 1978 follow-up tends to get in subsequent accounts of Oshima’s filmography. “Empire of Passion” is frequently dismissed as a sort of lite version of “In the Realm of the Senses”, made more with an international audience in mind. Perhaps this is a view encouraged by the casting of Tetsuya Fuji once again in the main role.
The storyline is once more about a couple who enter into a forbidden sexual relationship which takes them beyond the constraints of a consensus-governed Japanese society, but this time Oshima chose not to include the hard-core sex sequences which had shocked audiences around the world, and the film exists within a fairly standard cinematic discourse of erotic depiction. Although Oshima considered it to be a partner piece to his former work, that didn’t mean he was in any way interested in developing a formal style centred on images of pornography. The one consistent feature in Nagisa Oshima’s cinema up to that point had been his refusal to make any two films that looked like they were the work of the same person. This appears to have led to a disagreement between Oshima and Dauman and the two never worked together again, although “Empire of Passion” was deemed a hit at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978, where Oshima won the award for best director. This kind of visible acclaim perhaps also accounts for the short shrift often afforded the work since, but in fact “Empire of Passion” is a visually ravishing take on the traditional Japanese Kaidan ghost story, which sets out to remind us of “In the Realm of the Senses” mainly just so it can highlight the numerous differences in Oshima’s approach.
Oshima’s screenplay is once again a heightened representation of the events surrounding a true story, as had been “In the Realm of the Senses”. The director was reminded of the true-crime tale of murdered rickshaw driver Gisaburo through an account of the life of the great Japanese novelist Takashi Nagatsuka (who at one time had intended to write a novel about the case) sent to him by writer Itoko Nakamura -- who then collaborated with him on his subsequent screenplay. This time Oshima ventures farther back in time and into Japanese history, to the year 1895, with the urban setting of the previous film now swapped for that of the countryside, where we follow the daily lives of a poor, isolated Japanese peasant community.
The success of “In the Realm of the Senses” meant that Dauman was willing to lavish the film with a much bigger budget and the results are immediately evident on the screen with the lush splendour of Yoshio Miyajima’s gorgeous cinematography. The opening scenes set up a curious dreamlike style accompanied by Toru Takemitsu’s immersive score, which starts here with ominous percussive wind chimes and progresses to discordant orchestral cues as the events of the plot grow ever darker. Instead of the artificial look and stylised, ornately decorated sets that provided the claustrophobic rooms in which the lovers would meet in “In the Realm of the Senses” the aesthetic tone here is one of a more naturalistic bent that concerns itself with the depiction of a rural lifestyle governed by nature and the elements. To that effect we’re assailed throughout the picture with luminous sunsets, brooding storms, picturesque snowfalls and red leaves falling in the murmuring winds of autumn. Throughout almost all of the previous film, Oshima shot his external scenes in the studio -- relishing the artifice in the results. But here the director shoots large amounts of the film on location instead, giving the work a much more expansive feel, as well as a realistic edge.
Takahiro Tamura plays the ill-fated Gisaburo, a hard-working rickshaw driver and a family man with two children and a happy wife, Seki, who works as a maid in the home of the newly married young master who owns the lands on which they live. Life is hard, but everyone seems to be existing in a relatively happy state until Gisaburo half-jokingly mentions to his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) one day, the fact that young Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji) -- a discharged solder recently returned to the village after months away fighting in the Sino-Japanese War -- seems to be visiting their home quite often while he’s out working, and suggests the idea that the young man might be sweet on her.
Ironically, this offhand comment plants the seed that unleashes the destructive forces of passion which are to result in Gisaburo’s eventual murder. When Toyoji next visits Seki, she recalls her husband’s words and the thought that she, a woman old enough to be this man’s mother, might be an object of desire to him, enlivens her. Toyoji’s lusts are eventually awoken by the sight of Seki passed out exhausted from work after having breastfed her youngest son. This rather insistent seduction could have so easily turned into a rape if not for the desire already unwittingly ignited by Seki’s husband’s previous innocent suggestion to her. The two embark on a secret affair based around torrid sex; Toyoji even has Seki shave herself in order to aid his pleasuring of her -- but then becomes afraid that her husband will suspect them because of it; and, combined with his increasing jealously as he observes their small home at night from the hovel he occupies with his mentally deficient brother, is induced to draft the besotted Seki into an insane plot to murder Gisaburo so that they can eventually be together.
From the Oedipal subtext discernible in Toyoji’s first seduction of Seki in front of her infant son, to the desperate murder plot hatched out of sexual longing, Oshima is dealing once again with characters who seek to transgress the moral codes of their surroundings during a time when traditional forms of life are being uprooted. Toyoji returns from war with no clear role to play in a community heavily governed by cycles of nature determining, to a large extent, the rigid structures of peasant society. The increasing regulation of central Japanese government is starting to encroach on everyday life, and we see Gisaburo bemoaning the fact that the family’s daughter is now expected to attend school. The sudden intrusion into consciousness of these new possibilities and the renewed expectations in life that they generate, lead to Seki being seduced into going through with Toyoji’s terrible plot: first she gets poor Gisaburo drunk on saké, then she and Toyoji throttle him to death in his drunken stupor with a piece of rope; finally the couple pitch him down a deep well in the forest owned by Seki’s employers. For three years, Seki encourages the belief amongst the surrounding community that Gisaburo is away in Tokyo, but soon friends and neighbours begin to think it rather odd that the previously devoted family man has been absent from home so long. Ironically, to better disguise their act of murder, Seki and Toyoji have to stay away from each other during this extended period to avoid rumours and gossip from flaring up.
Yet their meticulous effort to avoid becoming the centre of a scandal eventually proves to have been made in vain. First, senior and respected members of the community start having dreams that appear to hint at Gisaburo’s unhappy end, and even Seki’s daughter frequently dreams about the same thing, which upsets her mother all the more. Then Seki herself starts seeing her husband’s pale ghost in the house – sat in his usual spot in front of the fire, awaiting his traditional cup of saké -- and the wheels of his old rickshaw often start spinning violently without being touched. After that other people in the village – Seki’s employer at the restaurant – start to encounter the same apparition, which seems to want nothing more than to continue the rituals of its old life and to serve the community as before.
In terms of its traditional folkloric ghost imagery, “Empire of Passion” conjures the spectre of classics in the genre such as Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” and even recent works such as “The Ring”, especially when we consider the central importance of the image of the well, within which the rotting, corporal remains of the ghost-form are hidden as Toyoji returns to toss dead leaves into it as some sort of act of contrition. On the surface, the tale seems to be heading in the direction we now habitually associate with the Japanese horror genre – that of the vengeful spirit whose spectral desire for revenge from beyond the grave spirals out to affect the lives of everyone in the surrounding community. But Gisaburo’s ghost is a very different breed from the one we all know. Oshima actually associated traditional Japanese ghost stories with a Chinese folkloric origin and disagreed with their use as ‘edifying tales of revenge’. His ghost is a melancholy, sad specimen who in no way seeks to make his murderers suffer for the crimes they committed against him in life. Nevertheless, the pale, silent spectre clearly functions as a manifestation of a guilty conscience -- first that of the distressed Seki and then of the surrounding community which, eventually, slowly begins to suspect it has let a crime go unheeded and unpunished.
The one character who, for most of the film, fails to encounter the ghost of Gisaburo, is Toyoji himself -- that is until suspicion does begin to heap itself about the couple’s shoulders (especially after the arrival of a spiteful city policeman, who comes to investigate circulating rumours that Seki has killed her husband), which is the point when Toyoji’s guilt over the fact that Seki’s life is now put in jeopardy results in Gisaburo finally appearing to him too. Despite the very unique use of the haunting motif to evoke the tension between tradition, primal desires and an ever-changing natural landscape that seeks to impose its cycles on the rural inhabitants, Oshima does bring some evocative traditional ghostly imagery into play, with misty landscapes, brewing storms and a wonderfully shivery dream sequence in which Seki receives a ghastly slow-motion rickshaw ride home, only to find her driver has no face -- just a blank white space that cascades with blood. On top of that, unlike “In the Realm of the Senses”, “Empire of Passion” is actually erotic, exchanging the placement of forensically anatomical depictions of sexual organs framed within a lush painterly backdrop for a shimmering candle-lit cocktail of desperate couplings, sparingly visualised as a release from village routine but mostly displayed discreetly in semi-shadow. The finale even sees a little Fulci-like eye violence when Seki’s guilt induces a bout of hysterical blindness which she experiences (and we see) as her eyeballs being pierced by bamboo spikes, and which is only alleviated when, after extensive torture and just before execution by the vengeful authorities, she apparently sees her husband again as his remains are disinterred from the well, at the very end of the film.
“Empire of Passion” is a much underrated film, gorgeous to look at and well-acted by the two leads with beautiful, compelling and memorable natural-looking seasonal imagery throughout. It’s a very different kind of film from its predecessor despite both dealing with true murder cases and with transgressive sexuality: they’re actually aiming for very different effects and “Empire of Passion” succeeds equally well on its own terms without need of challenging sexual imagery. This double-play release from StudioCanal (released simultaneous with “In the Realm of the Senses”) presents a beautiful HD transfer on Blu-ray, sporting newly translated and clear removable subtitles. The extras are not as extensive with this release as they were on the other, but the 15 minute featurette “Sur Le Tournage” provides some basic background on the genesis of the film and features many of Oshima’s regular collaborators, and there is another 53 minute talk featuring European film academics, filmed at Birkbeck College, London, which features an analysis of Oshima’s post-Senses career. A worthy UK release of a beautiful, memorable work of art.
Read more from Black Gloves at Nothing But the Night.blogspot.com