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Empire Of Passion (1978)
Director: Nagisa Ôshima

review by Jonathan McCalmont

The 1940s were a golden age for Japanese film. Postwar Japan's cinematic landscape was dominated by a series of large entertainment corporations who effectively controlled what the Japanese people got to see at the cinema. However, while today's studio systems are synonymous with financial bloat and creative sterility, Japan's postwar studio system found a way of balancing the economic needs of large corporations with those of a generation of gifted filmmakers, and those of a postwar population crying out for the sort of intelligent entertainment that might help them to make sense of their new postwar environment.

Lured in by the promise of a steady salary and some degree of creative control, the likes of Ozu and Kurosawa stormed the barricades of European cinematic exceptionalism and forged a cinematic tradition that still stands among the very best that the world has to offer. Unfortunately, history eventually asserted itself, and the age of gold turned to brass. By the 1970s, the Japanese studio system was in chaos and Japanese filmmakers took to the high seas of international film financing in order to produce films that might once have been Japanese studio pictures. This great exodus of Japanese cinematic talent lead to a number of interesting films, i including those resulting from the alliance between Japan's Nagisa Ôshima and France's Anatole Dauman.

On paper, this should have been a match made in heaven as Dauman had a reputation as one of the financial backers of the French 'new wave' while many of Ôshima's earlier films - including Night And Fog In Japan (1960), and Death By Hanging (1968) - boasted a decidedly French aesthetic sensibility. However, rather than infusing French cinema with a Japanese twist, and so winning over art house audiences, Ôshima's next film shocked the world. Combining eye-wateringly explicit scenes of un-simulated sexual activity with themes and images normally associated with horror films, In The Realm Of The Senses (1976), kicked off a wave of censorship that has only recently begun to recede. Rather than welcoming the film's shocking novelty, art house audiences were appalled by a film that did far too much far too quickly.

The reaction of art house audiences is peculiar as, despite its shocking themes and images, In The Realm Of The Senses is very much in the grand tradition of European art house cinema. Like the films that launched the art house movement and those that carried it out into the world, In The Realm Of The Senses is a film that demands active audience participation. A visually striking exploration of complex and dysfunctional relationships, In The Realm Of The Senses is a film that needs to be de-coded and interpreted, as such its rules of engagement are those of any other 1970s art house film.

Mindful of their shameful over-reaction and their failure to defend the film as governments rushed to ban it, the art house establishment responded by awarding Ôshima the 'best director' prize at Cannes for his next film Empire Of Passion (aka: Ai no borei), which is doubly strange as Empire Of Passion is very much a genre piece.

The film begins on a small Japanese farming community. The year, we are told, is 1895 but, aside from a couple of period uniforms, the film could be set at any point in Japan's feudal Edo period. In other words, this is a film set in a country that has not changed for centuries. Living in this community is the middle-aged rickshaw driver Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) and his preternaturally youthful-looking wife Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki). Gisaburo is a simple man who demands little of life. Devoid of both hopes and dreams, he lives a life of quiet servitude where happiness lies in bowls of warm sake and the occasional backrub. When Gisaburo's daughter expresses her regret at not going to school and her desire to live a good life, the rickshaw driver responds wistfully that her mother once used to say the same sort of thing, the implication being that she eventually grew out of this childish desire for happiness and came to accept a life of quiet and uncomplaining servitude at the bottom of the social ladder. Needless to say, events soon conspire to demonstrate the absolute falsehood of Gisaburo's assessment of his wife's character.

Left to her own devices for much of the day, Seki soon tumbles into a friendship with Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), a handsome former soldier who spends his days drunk and looking after his mentally-impaired brother. Given the quarter century age gap between the two characters, Toyoji's flirtatious behaviour initially comes across as a young man's playful flattery of an older woman. However, as verbal caresses give way to expensive gifts and lewd propositions, Seki realises that there is something more to her feelings for the young solder... something real. This reality bursts forth into the world when Toyoji effectively rapes Seki and looses a torrent of lust that soon consumes them both. Suddenly incapable of controlling their desires, the pair rapidly decide to murder Seki's husband and dump him in a well.

Claiming that Gisaburo has left for Tokyo and hoping to ward off local gossip, Seki and Toyoji studiously ignore each other for three long years until their shared guilt and desire manifests itself as the ghost of Gisaburo. As more and more villagers claim to have seen the ghost, a local police officer begins to investigate the rickshaw driver's disappearance. However, despite there being no real evidence that Gisaburo was murdered, let alone proof that the couple were responsible for his death, Seki and Toyoji begin to panic and the more they panic the more mistakes they make. Eventually, the truth proves too much and the couple surrender… allowing the community to drag the truth from them as they kick and scream their love, desire, and guilt.

This plot synopsis assumes a decidedly Freudian vision of human nature. One of the reasons why psychoanalysis has enjoyed such a fruitful academic un-death is that psychoanalysis is really nothing more than a poetics of self. Let me explain: according to Freud, we construct our image of ourselves based upon fragments of memory and cultural values. By and large, we live our lives safely cocooned within this set of expectations as to what it is that we are like. However, sometimes things happen that are completely contrary to how we see ourselves and the world around us; perhaps we suffered a traumatic assault, perhaps we got drunk and beat someone to death or maybe we walked in on our saintly mother doing naughty things with the neighbour.

According to Freud, these moments cause the self to protect itself by burying the memory. This memory then stays buried until something reminds us of it and we are suddenly pinned to the wall by the trauma of what we now know to be true: your mother was not a saintly woman who put her family first... she was a sexually voracious predator. Psychoanalysis allows us to uncover and confront these memories in the safe atmosphere of an analyst's room. By helping us to confront these memories and providing a theoretical framework that forms a bridge between our sense of self and our new discovery, the therapist helps our self to accommodate new and disturbing facts about itself. According to psychoanalysis, a failure to confront these memories in a safe context means that they are liable to de-cloak at any moment and, if the wrong memory resurfaces at the wrong moment, there is no telling what damage it can do.

One of the reasons why repression occurs is that not all memories and desires are socially acceptable. The values of the modern world make it relatively easy to confront the idea that your mother might have been unfaithful to your father but what if the memories you repress are much darker? What if that beloved uncle showered you with toys as rewards for 'services rendered'? What if you enjoyed what he did to you? The reason repression takes place is because there are times when even the most honest and moral of people simply cannot live up to what they have seen and what they have done. Society simply would not tolerate it. According to Freud in Civilisation And Its Discontents:

Much of mankind's struggle is taken up with the task of finding a suitable, that is to say a happy accommodation, between the claims of the individual and the mass claims of civilisation. One of the problems affecting the fate of mankind is whether such an accommodation can be achieved through a particular moulding of civilisation or whether the conflict is irreconcilable.

Empire Of Passion lends itself beautifully to a Freudian interpretation because it articulates not only the individual's reticence to accept their hidden desires but also the problem of living as a person who does accept that they have certain needs and desires. Indeed, while Seki and Toyoji seem genuinely horrified by the intensity of the desire that their tryst unlocks, the real meat of the film lies in the characters' refusal to own up to those desires and incorporate them into their personalities.

Seki and Gisaburo lived very separate lives. Seki spent her days at home while Gisaburo worked and, upon returning home, Gisaburo generally drank himself into a stupor. Given the fact that Seki and Gisaburo do not really share a life so much as sleep under the same roof, the decision by Seki and Toyoji to kill the rickshaw driver seems completely irrational. Why kill him when there was little chance of his finding out about the affair? In fact, in one early scene, Gisaburo playfully points out that Toyoji may have a crush on the older woman. Clearly, this thought does not bother him and he is neither possessive nor violent. In truth, the thing that pushed Toyoji and Seki to murder her husband was fear of being seen as adulterers. It is this fear that ruins the couple's life as, having killed Gisaburo, the pair wind up spending even less time together than they did when they were sneaking around. The couple's fear that their transgression might be discovered pushed them to murder, thereby creating an even bigger transgression for them to live down. Now they are not merely adulterers, they are murderers too.

In an interview given about the film, Ôshima pointed out that his ghost was a peasant's ghost and not the ghost of a samurai. Indeed, most traditional Japanese ghost stories take their cues from samurai morality by featuring ghosts dead set upon avenging their deaths. However, unlike the ghosts of samurai, the ghost of Gisaburo returns to Earth in order to resume his old life and his appearances tend to feature him either asking for more sake or offering to give people a ride. What is fascinating about this is that the guilt embodied by Gisaburo's ghost is entirely that of the couple. Gisaburo's ghost does not care that he was murdered... for him there is no transgression as his un-death is seemingly identical to his life. The idea that Gisaburo's reappearance is motivated by vengeance is entirely the creation of a couple living in absolute terror of discovery. Empire Of Passion is a film that explores the complex interaction between the passions, the self and the world. It is a haunting reminder of the human capacity for tying oneself in knots. It is also an exceptionally beautiful film.

Empire Of Passion is not a film that requires de-coding. It is a very simple story told in very simple terms: the characters are broad, the narrative is straightforward, the themes are self-evident, and the visuals elegantly support each and every one of these elements. The most obvious visual flourish is Ôshima's flawless visual composition: his camera frames the human face in angles and shadows that speak not only of the poverty of peasant life but also the richness of human experience lying therein. Toyoji and Seki's village may be ugly, but Ôshima somehow makes it look beautiful. Similarly impressive is the way in which Ôshima links the film's emotional beats to the passage of the seasons, ensuring that murders take place in the coldest parts of winter while passions bloom in the spring and everything begins to rot come autumn-time. As befits a genre picture, Empire Of Passion also includes some truly memorable set-pieces including a ghost rickshaw ride and a flame-licked suicide attempt that are guaranteed to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Empire of Passion

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press