Judge Dan Mancini ain't afraid of no ghost.
"It's definitely a daring film, but not in the way everyone had expected."—Actress Kazuko Yoshiyuki on Empire of Passion
Nagisa Oshima's most famous film is 1976's In the Realm of the Senses, a sexually explicit erotic drama based on the real-life 1936 erotic asphyxiation of a man by his lover, Sada Abe. Though remembered primarily for containing hardcore sex between established Japanese actors Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda, the movie is more than just arthouse porn. It fascinates because it is loaded with Oshima's transgressive sensibilities and general antagonism toward traditional Japanese society.
Oshima had been making movies for 17 years by the time he made international waves with In the Realm of the Senses. He is arguably the most important director of the Japanese New Wave that began in the late 1950s. His radical left-wing politics, disdain for cinema conventions, and antagonistic relationship to the three Japanese cinema giants of the previous generation (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu) ensured that his films were often controversial and only occasionally financially successful. Oshima's relationship with Shochiku (the studio with which he had a long relationship) was so shaky, it's amazing that he was as prolific as he was (In the Realm of the Senses was his twenty-fifth film, and he'd made almost as many television movies). His career is probably best explained by the fact that, by the 1960s Japanese studios were in such dire financial shape that they were loath to dismiss a director who could crank out moderately successful product on the cheap. Oshima's politics may have rankled studio executives, but his ability to work within the bounds of a low budget made him worth keeping around.
In the Realm of the Senses was an experiment for Oshima, born of his three-picture deal with French producer Anatole Dauman (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), who wanted Oshima to direct a trio of arthouse pictures that would generate controversy (and a lot of free press) by featuring hardcore sex. For Oshima, the deal with Dauman allowed him to experiment in ways he could not when working with Shochiku (uncensored, In the Realm of the Senses is still illegal in Japan), but the producer's demands for sexual content to feed his PT Barnum-like hunger for controversy and free marketing quickly wore thin for Oshima. Empire of Passion, the second of the three proposed films, is an intelligent drama-horror movie characterized by Oshima's subversive social and political insights, but the hardcore sex is noticeably absent. Oshima wasn't interested in kowtowing to an arty French producer any more than he was to Japanese studio bean counters. As a result, he and Dauman only made two of the three planned films together. Regardless, In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion make a powerful, thoughtful diptych about the convergence of sex and subversive politics.
Facts of the Case
Set in the middle of the Meiji period, Empire of Passion tells the story of Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Taboo), a middle-aged barmaid at a low-rent inn who takes up an affair with Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji, In the Realm of the Senses), a much younger man whose amorous feelings for Seki are matched only by his persistence. Possessive of his new love, Toyoji insists that Seki help him murder her husband, the rickshaw driver Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura, Tora! Tora! Tora!). The lovers dump Gisaburo's body in a deep well and convince their fellow villagers that he's taken an extended business trip to Tokyo to earn a better living for his family. Seki is wracked with guilt over the murder, and the village gossip about her relationship with Toyoji only intensifies her pain. Soon, Gisaburo's ghost begins to appear to various villagers and Seki's daughter has dreams that her father is dead and at the bottom of a well. As a local constable (Takuzo Kawatani, Battles without Honor or Humanity) begins investigating Gisaburo's disappearance, Seki and Toyoji come to understand that their passionate affair is doomed.
In the Realm of the Senses may be more famous than Empire of Passion, but I've always preferred the latter film. While In the Realm of the Senses is a moderately interesting political statement mostly remembered for its sensationalist sexual content, Empire of Passion is a near perfect mix of political polemic and genre conventions. Both movies are about female protagonists whose sexual attachments put them on the wrong side of cultural conventions. In the Realm of the Senses is about a woman (Sada Abe) and her lover drifting to sexual extremes even by the standards of the underground red-light districts of prostitution, gambling, and heavy drinking in which the story is set. The social and psychological extremes at play in the movie make it something of a harrowing freak show. Its subversive political message is muddied in the process—or at least it's difficult to relate to on an emotional level, considering the creepily self-destructive behavior of its protagonists. By contrast, Empire of Passion is set in a poor rural village in the 1870s. The lengths to which Seki and Toyoji go to indulge their lust for one another represent an upending of conventional mores, but an upending that has enough emotional and visceral power that we almost hope the lovers get away with their crime (the story has much in common with James M. Cain's classic crime novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice). In In the Realm of the Senses, Oshima tilts so violently at bourgeois sensibilities that the audience is left feeling battered and, frankly, bummed out; in Empire of Passion, his dissection is so sly and precise that one feels sympathy for Seki, a woman who is oppressed by a patriarchal system and is the subject of cruel gossip among her fellow women.
The great thing about Empire of Passion is that it works as a ghost yarn just as well as it does as a critique of Japanese culture. With special effects that don't extend much beyond pasty blue-white grease paint on actor Takahiro Tamura's face, Oshima creates a movie with genuinely creepy atmosphere. The film is a great showcase of the director's skills as a storyteller. His careful use of framing, lighting, and editing work together to make something as simple as a wheel spinning on a neglected rickshaw eerie and discomfiting. Gisaburo's ghost's frequent appearances to Seki and other villagers are delivered with a minimum of dramatic flourishes (no spooky music; no dissolves to simulate the presence of an apparition), but his somber, motionless silence has a disturbing visceral power. Oshima's horror story has something of the flavor of the psychological dread in the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. It's not Gisaburo's pallid, corpse-like appearance that sends chills up our spines, but the fact that we've been made to pity Seki's abuse at the hands of Toyoji's cruel and selfish indulgence of his own lust, yet the appearance of her husband's restless ghost is an unwelcome reminder that her violation of the established social order cannot go unpunished. Empire of Passion is a seamless integration of Oshima's politics and an old-fashioned scary story, expertly told.
Unlike with In the Realm of the Senses, there is no Blu-ray version of Empire of Passion to accompany its release on DVD. Still, Criterion's transfer of the film to the standard definition format is beautiful. According to Criterion's liner notes, the transfer was sourced from the original 35mm camera negative. After scanning, the image was digitally restored. The result is accurate color, superb detail, and a wash of grain that is a fine imitation of celluloid. The presentation is 1.66:1, enhanced for widescreen displays. The original analog Japanese audio track has also been restored and is presented in a single-channel mix that places dialogue, music, and effects in the center speaker of a surround sound system. The track itself is thin and occasionally tinny with isolated instances of distortion in high frequencies, but the restoration is exemplary. There isn't a hint of age-related defects. Any problems (all of which are minor) exist in the original recording.
In addition to the feature, the DVD contains two video interviews. The first was conducted for Criterion in 2008 and features Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tatsuya Fuji. Over its 17-minute running time, the actors discuss their roles and the production of the film. On the Set is a 13-minute featurette produced in 2003. It features interviews with production consultant Koji Wakamatsu and assistant directors Yusuke Narita and Yoichi Sai. The men provide more recollections about the film's production, but go into more behind-the-scenes detail about Oshima's deal with Dauman and the genesis of the project. The first interview is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, while the second is offered in a full frame presentation.
Double Obsession: Seki, Sada, and Oshima is a video essay by film studies professor Catherine Russell about the connections between Empire of Passion and In the Realm of the Senses. The 20-minute piece is indexed into five parts.
The disc also contains a trailer for the film.
In addition to the onboard extras, there is a 30-page insert booklet that contains a fine essay by critic Tony Rayns about Oshima and his film, a lengthy interview of Oshima from a 1978 issue of Positif, and technical information about the video and audio transfers.
Criterion's DVD offers a beautiful presentation of Empire of Passion, a lesser-known Nagisa Oshima film that is definitely worth checking out.
Seki and Toyoji are guilty; Criterion's release of Empire of Passion
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