Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) goes quietly insane in Ôshima's Empire Of Passion (1978)
The second Franco-Japanese production between Anatole Dauman and Nagisa Ôshima, Empire Of Passion is, like 1976's In The Realm Of The Senses, a mythical tale of forbidden love, chronicling the affair between a couple whose uncontrollable desires drove them to murder. The film won Ôshima the Best Director award at Cannes, and watching this gorgeous new Blu-Ray transfer it's easy to see why. Literally translated from the Japanese Ai no borei as Love's Phantom, Ôshima's second masterwork is a compelling study of guilt, passion and retribution in 19th Century Japan...
The film opens on a shot of rickshaw wheels beating away at crumbling turf, pulled by the sake-loving Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura), husband to the repressed Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki). The year in 1895, and word in this densely populated Japanese village travels fast. Seki is having an affair with the mysterious Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), and soon, after shaving her pubic hair, it is decided they must kill Gisaburo. That night the lovers strangle their witless victim and throw him down a deep well. Three years pass, and rumours of a ghost begin to pass through the village...
Originating from the Edo period (1603 - 1868), Kaidan is a Japanese word roughly translated as "ghost story". These stories, popular since the early 1700's, can be traced through painting, literature and cinema, right up to the recent J-Horror movement (Ju-On, Takashi Shimizu, 2002). But Empire Of Passion is not your traditional horror picture, and its ghost doesn't seek vengeance. His soul is restless, appearing to Seki as a conflicted spirit. I found myself wondering what emotions a ghost could feel, and what memories he retained. Could he still feel love for his wife, and therefore feel the cold sting of her betrayal? His appearance in this world, at his wife's side - is this purgatory? Eventually his presence drives the woman insane, and one striking sequence has her sitting, serenely, at the center of a burning house. The sequence preceding this one, in which Gisaburo takes her on a rickshaw ride through a spectral landscape, is utterly terrifying. Gisaburo's haunted features, painted a theatrically pale shade of white, speak of a man whose depression must last him an eternity.
Ôshima's compositions are really impressive here, this time lensed by master DP Yoshio Miyajima (probably hired on the basis of his work for Masaki Kobayashi's portmanteau classic Kwaidan, 1964). The ethereal mist which haunts Seki's nights is especially effective, and the camera always hovers above Gisaburo's ghost, rendering him powerless. Ôshima understands framing in a way very few directors do, and every shot seems designed to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Once again the director is aided by first-class performances. Fuji is as good here as he's ever been, turning in another complex character whose motives and passions are expressed through the enigma of his eyes. Yoshiyuki looks physically ravaged by the end of the film, and Tamura, with the least screentime, makes for an entirely convincing spirit. It's another performance relayed entirely through actions, and the actor hasn't recieved nearly enough praise for his portrayal.
Dauman's list of production credits is astonishing, finding works by Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959), Bresson (Mouchette, 1967) and Laloux (Fantastic Planet, 1973) before catching up with New Wave frontrunner Ôshima. Dauman suggested to the director, upon their meeting at the Venice Film Festival, that they collaborate on a project; "Let's make a porno flick!", he said. The result of this meeting was In The Realm Of The Senses, but two years later the pair would reunite on Empire Of Passion, something of a companion piece to their previous film. His influence on Ôshima's career cannot be underestimated, especially considering the depiction of sex. It was because of France's sexual liberation, when in 1975 all restrictions on the production of pornography were abolished, that the director was able to shoot such explicit material, and therefore break new ground in his home country. For Empire Of Passion he would learn restraint, using this new freedom to create an emotional epic, still wrestling with the same themes of his previous picture.
After watching both films I flicked through some old Criterion essays, and came across this quote from Ôshima, dated 1969: "Sex and crime have one thing in common - they are the most violent urges of human beings." This is the thread which ties all of his work together, but particularly those collaborations with Dauman (it surprises me that he didn't produce Max Mon Amour, 1986, a bourgeoise satire in which Charlotte Rampling takes a chimp as her lover). Empire Of Passion is perhaps a more confident film than In The Realm Of The Senses, but it is most interesting when taken together with that film; taken as a study of sex and crime, and the line inbetween, if in fact one exists at all. In Ôshima's world I think sex and crime make for compellingly strange bedfellows. It's a world unlike any other in cinema...
Another fantastic remastering job, showcasing crystal clear image and sound. It's a technically faultless release and a perfect example of what Blu-Ray can do. The extras are somewhat disappointing though, comprising a brief retrospective documentary and another panel discussion, again with Julian Ross (historian/curator), Jasper Sharp (author of 'Behind The Pink Curtain'), Roland Domenig (film scholar) and Mathieu Capel (scholar). Not as extensive as In The Realm Of The Senses, nor as interesting, but this is a recommendable package all the same.
Empire Of Passion is released on Blu-Ray in the UK on Monday 17th October. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.