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Winner of the best director award in the Cannes film festival in 1978, and seen as a companion film to "In the Realm of the Senses", Nagisa Oshima's "Empire of Passion" is based on the book by Toko Nakamura and produced in France. At first look, the film looks a like your run-of-the-mill Japanese horror film in the tradition of "Onibaba" and "Kwaidan", but "Empire of Passion" is much more. It is an erotic melodrama that uses horror elements, and has very strong commentary about desire, sexual independence, fallen women, social relations and political resistance.
Japan 1895, in a small Japanese village, a comely woman named Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is married to a rickshaw driver named Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). Seki is a lot older than she looks, she barely looks 30, and is only a few years younger than her husband; they have two kids and although they lead a hard life, they seem content. Her youthful features make her the apple of the eyes of an ex-soldier named Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji). The two develop a friendship, often flirting, until Toyoji forces himself on Seki. Seki tries to fight him off but eventually gives in, and the two begin a forbidden affair. The couple plots to kill Gisaburo and to throw his body in an old well, but this crime would carry a heavy toll on the guilt-ridden lovers. A constable named Hotta (Takuzo Kawatani) is finally drawn by suspicion because of the rumors around the townsfolk, and to make matters worst, Gisaburo's ghost begins to haunt Seki...
"Empire of Passion" may carry strong elements of horror, the film only uses this as a backdrop. The film's main premise is very simple, but it is structured well around the destruction by one's succumbing to passion. As I've mentioned, Oshima intended this film as a companion film to his "In the Realm of the Senses", they have similar themes of fallen women, both have a strong social commentary, and both films express the idea that desire may lead to destruction. The main characters of Sada and Kichi in the film "In the Realm of the Senses" carry parallels to Tomoji and Seki's characters in this film. The two pairs from two different films experience uncontrollable desire and lust that ultimately leads to their destruction. Both films are subtle in the commentaries against a totalitarian rule, and are both controversial in their themes of sexuality with women more seen as victims.
While "In the Realm of the Senses" express voyeurism within the supporting characters, (geishas and cleaning women; even Sada watches Kichi make love to his wife), the townsfolk in "Empire of Passion" are the kind that gets repulsed by an affair; they gossip and talk about Seki and Toyoji, they renounced the suspected affair but they enjoy talking about it. Both films make a powerful commentary of female sexuality. Seki is a woman caught in the heat of the moment, she refuses but her body gives in to Toyoji's sexual advances. It was quite interesting and the film received widespread criticism when Toyoji rapes Seki while her son Isichi is crying in the other room. Seki's body betrays her and she ends up giving in. Yes, the film contains graphic displays of sexual intercourse but very TAME when compared to "In the Realm of the Senses". Matsuda and Fuji who played Sada and Kichi in Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" were actually 'doing' it while Fuji and Yoshiyuki in this film only had simulated sex scenes. Toyoji;s scene with Seki's `shaving' signifies a change of ownership which may be the reason as to why Seki shed tears when Toyoji shaved her private area. Their most erotic scene together maybe the scene when Seki and Toyoji are almost totally covered in mud, until they are caught naked by the constables. All these factors express an ideology to rebel against authority and to make a statement against the expectations of society. While both of Oshima's films express the idea that the law triumphs over desire, it does provide a balance to its indictment of adultery--when the two lovers are tortured by the constables, Oshima expresses a powerful indictment of the wrongs done by some authority figures to lowly folk.
This film does have its share of unsettling scenes which enforces its supernatural backdrop. The film is beautifully shot and the cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima looks very good. The shots by Oshima give the Japanese town a certain characteristic that adds to the film's characterization. Oshima also intentionally shoots the folks who gossip as either having their back turned, or their heads turned slightly sideways--to express the idea that gossips are damaging to one's character (true or not) and that there is no way to root out the source. The ghostly scenes looked very surreal and has that ominous feeling of dread, that you know something horrible is about to happen. As with classic films of Japanese horror, the ghost in "Empire of Passion" has the ability to interact, eat and drink. Gisaburo's ghost may mean no harm to Seki, and all he may want is to live in his own house. "Onibaba" obviously has influenced this film, as displayed by the well. I also thought that it was curious to see the autumn leaves being thrown into the well. Oshima also shows the passage of time through the seasons.
"Empire of Passion" may falter if you look at it from a horror perspective, the film wasn't supposed to be scary but more of an erotic melodrama. The actual antagonist is the situation itself and our protagonists' uncontrollable desire, its consequences expressed by karma. The film was also criticized by being too conventional, and doesn't have that Japanese feel to it, funny, conventional storytelling was began by the Japanese. The one flaw I can say about the film is that it began to lose gas near the end, that some scenes felt a little too stretched out. The film is definitely "kaidan" in its nature, and fans of classic films like "Onibaba" and "Ugetsu" will no doubt enjoy the film. The film carries elements of a traditional Japanese ghost story with strong social commentary about sexual transgressions, accompanied by eroticism. Those impressed with Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" owe it to themselves to see "Empire of Passion". This film is a lot tamer than Oshima's highly controversial film, but it just makes it easier to connect with. After all, how can you resist an erotic film with supernatural elements?
Highly Recommended! [4 Stars]