Did you know that there is a porn magazine called "Shaved Orientals"? Now you do.
Nagisa Oshima had a lot to live up to after his hard-core porn flick "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976) rode a wave of controversy to international festival success. The ad campaign for "Empire of Passion" was pretty easy to piece together: "From the director who brought you ‘In the Realm of the Senses'…" Audiences queued up with dreams of another hump fest gussied up with art-house legitimacy and Oshima delivered, at least for the first reel.
"Empire of Passion" centers on another obsessive sexual relationship that leads to violence. Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji, the male lead in "Realm") is infatuated with the much older Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and shows his love by raping her while her infant son screams from the other room. Seki likes it, and things get hot and heavy very quickly with each of the lovers yielding to desire with complete abandon.
After Toyoji demands that Seki shave herself "down there," they are faced with a dilemma. Seki's husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) is eventually going to notice that there's no grass on the old ball field anymore, therefore they have no choice but to kill him. Seki gets Gisaburo drunk and the two of them strangle him to death and dump him down a well.
So far "Empire" is almost tawdry enough to match up with "Realm" but Oshima toys with audience expectations by abruptly switching genres. Three years pass and the lovers must still remain discreet in order to maintain the cover story that Gisaburo has gone to Tokyo on business. The gossipy, vigilant townsfolk are a constant threat to Toyoji and Seki, but things get much more complicated once Gisaburo shows up again, this time as a ghost.
The ghost story (kaidan) has a long history in Japanese folklore and cinema, and usually refers to ghost stories set in the past rather than contemporary J-horror flicks. Gisaburo's ghost is a bit different, however, because he is not necessarily a vengeful spirit looking to bring his killers to justice. According to Oshima, he was more of a lingering spirit who simply wanted to hang on to the fringes of his old life.
This subtle difference doesn't register with Toyoji and Seki, however, who are understandably filled with terror at the return of their murder victim. Events unfold slowly as their paranoia builds. A somewhat incompetent but still menacing police inspector only adds fuel to the fire. I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that things don't end up well.
The film clings to the spirit of "In the Realm of the Senses" in one important way. No matter how serious the external threat, the couple will not be broken up nor will their passion diminish in the slightest. Even after they stand hip deep in muck to dig for Gisaburo's body, they wind up making love in a mud-encrusted frenzy.
"Empire of Passion" is shot in a naturalistic style that makes its supernatural aspect all the more effective. There is one scene which might be labeled classic horror in which the ghost of Gisaburo, who was a rickshaw driver, takes his wife for a ride down a road to nowhere, but for the most part this is very much a film about peasant life in 1890s Japan. Gisaburo subsists by raking leaves for fuel; his master generously permits him to do so. The claustrophobia of the tiny village is very realistically portrayed; it is a prison whose walls Toyoji and Seki have likely never left.
One of the most beautiful shots in the film is repeated several times. Looking from the bottom of the well which serves as Gisaburo's grave, we see a crisp circle of sky. Each time we see it, a different season passes. Glittering snowflakes fall in winter just like the leaves in autumn. It is these scenes, not those with Gisaburo's ghost, that are the most haunting and evocative ones in the film.
"Empire of Passion" is neither erotic nor scary, but this eccentric mixture of sex and the supernatural captures a tangible sense of paranoia and repression in a tiny corner of the world that offers few possibilities for its residents. It's weird, but it's interesting which makes it a heck of an improvement over "In the Realm of the Senses."
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer. I have run out of different ways to describe Criterion's superior quality so I won't even try. The image is razor sharp, and the colors are rich. This is a gorgeous film and the transfer does it justice.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Viewers can also choose to watch the film with an English-dubbed track though I can't imagine why anyone would want to do so. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
Visual essays are becoming an increasingly common offering from Criterion, and I hope we get to see more. This time author and film professor Catherine Russell offers an analysis of both "In the Realm of the Senses" and "Empire of Passion" in a feature labeled "Double Obsession: Seki, Sada, and Oshima" (20 min.)
Two interviews are included: a 2008 interview with lead actors Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tatsuya Fuji (17 min.) and a 2003 interview with production consultant Koji Wakamatsu and assistant directors Yusuke Narita and Yoichi Sai (13 min.)
The U.S. Trailer is also included.
The insert booklet features an essay by Tony Rayns (who did the commentary track for "In the Realm of the Senses") and a 1978 interview with Oshima which originally appeared in the May 1978 issue of French journal "Positif." Conducted by Michael Henry.
I have no idea if audiences were disappointed at the relative dearth of bodily fluids expended in "Empire of Passion" which was also coyly marketed as "In the Realm of Passion." The jury at Cannes certainly wasn't. Oshima received the Best Director Award and the film was nominated for the Palme d'Or. It was the first and only Cannes award Oshima received, though he was nominated for three other films, including the David Bowie-helmed "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence."