Empire of Passion: Film Review

Directed by: Nagisa Oshima, Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: B+

Though considered to be a complimentary film -- a pseudo-sequel of sorts -- to his controversial erotic drama In the Realm of the Senses, it's important to bear in mind that Nagisa Oshima's Empire of Passion (L'empire de la passion, or Ai no borea) stands alone as an outstanding "kaidan" film on its own terms. Those familiar with the likes of Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu and Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba will have an easy time grasping this Japanese ghost story's structure, a framework that relies heavily on atmosphere, subtle physical drama between the living and the dead, and an abundance of allegory underneath seemingly simple and, oftentimes, passionate theatrics. Alongside these bullet points, Oshima also carries over familiar themes that revolve around passion's destructive power, transforming his spooky follow-up into a more thoroughly involving picture than its controversial inspiration.

Set in late 19th century Japan, Empire of Passion revolves around deceit and, ultimately, murder, with sexual gratification as a motivator. Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), a simple wife to a rickshaw driver named Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) and servant to a house in her town, reluctantly begins an affair with an aggressive ex-soldier named Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji, the male lead from In the Realm of the Senses). Their initial encounter leads to a series of sexual rendezvous -- toned down from those that Oshima photographed from In the Realm of the Senses -- that would ultimately cloud Seki's mind with delusions of happiness and satisfaction outside of her domestically-driven, mundane life. For her to spend her life with her aggressive courter, a charming man who brings her fruit dumplings and compliments in ways unlike her husband, the two of them arrange a happenstance murder to rid of Seki's husband.

When Gisaburo's ghost returns to haunt the city and, ultimately, her household, they fear that their secret will surface from underneath the leaves and sludge covering his body at the bottom of a nearby well. Oshima concentrates on the concept of ethereal figures being mere extensions of people instead of purely frightening apparitions, though all of the townsfolk would prefer that the rickshaw driver's ghost wouldn't continue to haunt their area. Instead, Seki's husband is more like an element of her conscience returning to make her life as restless as his conclusion. He's neither aggressive nor complacent in his state, but more of the sole piece of evidence that'll convict her and her lover in a time where bloody knives and fingerprints couldn't convict wrongdoers and simple gossip amid townsfolk could taint those without a formal conviction. The limited number of direct scare devices present in Empire of could deflect more casual horror fans, but the rickshaw driver's ghastly presence is certain to rustle up at least a few mild shivers.

Those familiar with the many levels of Japanese horror, from Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan itself to modern pieces like Ju-on (The Grudge) and Ringu (The Ring), will have an easy time grasping the notion that subtle ambient suspense and well-conceived photography are Oshima's primary tools at play in his stab at at campfire folklore. It's a traditional Japanese ghost story through and through, with regret and temerity as the essentials intermingled within the compartmentalized narrative. The plot is simple and streamlined with little development, instead relying on both traditional storytelling and Oshima's fervent connection with eroticism as its draws. It's not geared to surprise us as much as it's out to mildly thrill underneath a layer of compelling dramatics bouncing between the leads and a supple sense of aesthetic atmosphere. Though the drama within Seki's love triangle compels to a few mild degrees, the dynamics between them achieve much more once the supernatural elements sneak into the picture. Watching Seki fetch high-content alcohol for her ghostly husband in the middle of the night, along with hearing his voice during an reenacted situation with Toyoji to respark their relationship, transforms Oshima's tone into one of dark comedy and foreboding, swelling tension.

Yoshio Miyajima's cinematography work in Empire of Passion becomes a key element behind its memorable vibe, as it paints the story with equally beautiful and eerie mise-en-scene. With Oshima's eyes for visual motifs, the two blend several symbols together for dramatic effect, one of the most obvious metaphorical symbols is the usage of the circle to emphasize the cyclical nature of the film. Through rotating wheels and the opening at the top of a well in which we see the seasons changing, it conveys a sense of fluid movement throughout time in a striking fashion. It might not sound like much of a time dynamic to watch rickshaw spokes spin and a mixture of leaves and snowflakes fall into a watery grave, but they interact with the traditional "kaidan" elements in an immensely engaging fashion. Also, it's obvious that Oshima really made an effort to make his ghost story a more accessible film through the camera work, as it covers up the minimal sexual content with strategically-placed jettison planks of wood and pieces of fabric -- along with thoughtfully-arranged body parts and shadows.

Unlike In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion takes on a more conventional form with the male-female dynamic. Where Sado Abe, the lead in Oshima's precursory film, takes on a dominant and violent disposition in her relationship, Seki takes very few strides to exercise any dominance in her relationships -- both with Toyoji and her husband. Instead, they only share a similar desperation in common, showcasing how Oshima focuses on the theme of feeling trapped underneath tradition and commonplace practices in different ways. Seki, as a character, doesn't stray far from gender archetypes put into motion with Japanese cinema's portrayal of 19th century women at the time, but she does show a few glimmers of breaking the mold within her murderous act -- though it was under the pressure of Toyoji. It's in their fleeting desperation, a glance at ensnaring something potent in a time of monotony, that their misguided relationship delivers a dose of potency revolving around the confusing, overwhelming and only partly gratifying nature of desire.

Empire of Passion communicates similar messages to In the Realm of the Senses regarding the consuming nature of sexual transgressions, but Oshima's decision to take it down a more convivial path as a ghost story wedged within tradition was a wise choice. In his decisions to tame that desire to create purely provocative cinema, he also allows some of his political concepts to be more readily accessible and discernible to the naked eye -- especially graspable once the film starts to crash towards its imminent conclusion. Through the eyes of Japanese horror fans and those whom appreciate classic ghost stories, it'll satisfy in all the same ways while adding dashes of Nagisa Oshima's erotically charged elucidations into its satisfying construction. Once you've seen the likes of the director's more aggressive neo-erotica, politically motivated experiment, it'll feel like a chill-inducing walk in the park -- and an immensely enjoyable one in the vein of other "kaidan" pictures of its ilk. As an avid fan of that particular genre, in both classic and contemporary concoctions, Empire of Passion left me gripped.


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