Empire of Passion (Ai no borei)

Empire of Passion
(Ai no borei)
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Nagisa Oshima (based on the novel by Itoko Namura)
Stars: Tatsuya Fuji (Toyoji), Kazuko Yoshiyuki (Seki), Takahiro Tamura (Gisaburo), Takuzo Kawatani (Inspector Hotta), Masami Hasegawa (Shin), Akiko Koyama (Landowner’s mother), Taiji Tonoyama (Toichiro)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1978
Country: France / Japan
Empire of Passion Criterion Collection DVD
Empire of PassionNagisa Oshima was never an easy filmmaker to pin down, constantly shifting his visual style and subject matter even as he maintained a consistent focus on the socially marginalized, a reflection of his leftist sensibilities in an intensely conservative era. It is no great surprise, then, that he followed up his internationally scandalous art-house hit In the Realm of the Senses (1976), the first Japanese film to feature explicit, unsimulated sexual imagery, with Empire of Passion, a film that is, in virtually every way, its complete opposite except its marginalized characters and their immersion in sex and violence as a means of rebellion. Oshima himself said that the two films were meant to be seen together as a diptych, but it is hard to imagine that he didn’t relish their stark differences even more than their similarities.While In the Realm of the Senses takes place in urban Japan in the mid-1930s during the rise of militarism that would lead to the country’s involvement in World War II, Empire of Passion takes place in a small, rural village in 1895, which places it near the end of the Meiji Period of Japanese history in which the country was immersed in a rapid program of modernization and rising international standing. The rustic nature of the film’s characters and the locations they inhabit--all of which could easily be from the 16th century--are sharply contrasted with modern intrusions such as a white-uniformed police officer (Oshima’s symbol of society’s cruelty and repression) and talk of various characters going off to work in Tokyo, the great icon of modern Japan.

In its broad parameters, Empire of Passion derives from the folkloric tradition of kaidan, or ghost stories, which first developed during the premodern Edo Period (roughly 1603 to 1868). Although it is the only film in which Oshima evokes the fantastical, Empire of Passion reworks many of the genre’s expectations, most specifically the role played by the ghost itself. In most kaidan, the point of the story is didactic in nature, with the ghost returning to exact vengeance for his or her wrongful death. In Oshima’s film, there is a wrongful death, but when the ghost returns, he is more pathetic than vengeful, which suggests that the ghost does not exist at all, but is rather a psychological projection of the protagonists’ collective guilt (thus, the film may not be fantastical after all).

The protagonists are Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), a rootless young soldier who has returned to his small village after fighting in the Sino-Japanese war, and Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), a much older woman (about twice his age) after whom he lusts. Their affair commences when he assaults her one morning while she is sleeping and then develops into a case of amour fou (“mad love”) that drives them to plot against Seki’s husband, a rickshaw driver named Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). Similarities to numerous film noir, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Double Indemnity (1944) are immediately apparent as Toyoji and Seki strangle Gisaburo to death and dump his body in an abandoned well. However, their plan is ill-conceived and rushed, and they find themselves trapped in a situation in which they can’t actually be together because their gossipy fellow villagers will immediately assume that something bad has happened to Gisaburo if they are seen in each other’s company (Seki’s excuse for her husband’s sudden absence, which goes on for three years, is that he has gone to Tokyo to find work). Eventually, Gisaburo’s ghost begins to haunt them, and, sad and lowly though it may be, drives them to increasingly desperate ends to soothe their tortured conscience.

Although it often falls in the shadow of the more provocative In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion is the better of the two films. The former was something of an experiment, an attempt by Oshima (at the behest of French producer Anatole Dauman, who produced both films) to challenge the restrictive nature of Japanese obscenity law while also testing the waters for explicit sexual imagery in artistically driven films. In that regard the film was a success, as it caused an international scandal, but the film itself is ultimately lacking in its one-dimensional focus on physical carnality at the expense of virtually everything else. Empire of Passion evokes many of the same themes about obsessive desire and adulterous sexuality as a rebuke of tradition and conformity, but without the ultimately tiresome fixedness on sex.

Eschewing the fixed-camera starkness of Senses, Oshima and cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima (who also shot Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan) make Empire of Passion into a rich visual feast. It is a moody and beautiful film, as engrossing and evocative as In the Real of the Senses is monotonous. The realism of the physical locations is juxtaposed with the heightened sense of atmosphere created by torrential rainfall, billowing snow, and, most importantly, an almost pervasive mist that swirls and intrudes on virtually every scene. The film is simultaneously realistic and stylized, a powerful fusion that gives it a constant edge that gets sharper and sharper as the narrative drives forward, bringing Toyoji and Seki closer and closer to their fates. Oshima frames his doomed characters in claustrophobic compositions, although many of these, most memorably their eventual torture, are long shots. The most striking and memorable images in the film are repeated low angle shots from inside the well looking up at Toyoji and Seki peering over the rim as if looking into their own unavoidable fate.

Empire of Passion Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • “Double Obsession: Seki, Sada, and Oshima” video essay by film historian and critic Catherine Russell
  • Video interviews with actors Kazuo Yoshiyuki and Tatsuya Fuji
  • Video interviews with production consultant Koji Wakamatsu and assistant directors Yusuke Narita and Yoichi Sai
  • U.S. theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic and historian Tony Rayns and a 1978 interview with Nagisa Oshima
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateApril 28, 2009

    It is a shame that Criterion decided to release In the Realm of the Senses in simultaneous Blu-Ray and DVD editions instead of Empire of Passion, which would have benefitted much more from full 1080p resolution. Still, watching the standard-def image on this DVD leaves little to complain about, as the transfer, which was taken from the original 35mm camera negative, is spot-on gorgeous. Colors are rich and sumptuous, whether they be the golden reds and yellows of autumn or the icy blues of winter, and the black levels are excellent throughout with great shadow detail that makes the film’s later creepy sequences really work. The MTI Digital Restoration System has left the image virtually flawless, with no signs that the film is more than 30 years old. The monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and sounds quite good, especially Toru Takemitsu’s haunting score. An English-dubbed track is included, as well.
    Although there is no audio commentary, there is an excellent new 20-minute video essay by film historian and critic Catherine Russell titled “Double Obsession: Seki, Sada, and Oshima.” In comparing and contrasting In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion visually and thematically, Russell provides a good, concise summation of both films and how they work together and separately. Also on the disc is a brand-new 17-minute video interview with actors Kazuo Yoshiyuki and Tatsuya Fuji (who were recorded separately). They discuss both their work with Oshima and their work together, as they have appeared in four films together between 1964 and 2005. In addition, the disc features 13 minutes of video interviews with production consultant Koji Wakamatsu and assistant directors Yusuke Narita and Yoichi Sai, all of which were originally recorded for and included on the 2003 European DVD release. Finally, there is the original U.S. theatrical trailer and a thick insert booklet containing an essay by critic and historian Tony Rayns (who recorded an audio commentary for Criterion’s In the Realm of the Senses DVD) and a 1978 interview with Nagisa Oshima originally published in the French film journal Positif.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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