[21 May 2009]
Nagisa Oshima’s sado-masochistic ghost story has been interpreted by some as an embittered response to authoritarian condemnation of his previous film, the sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses (1976). In her video essay ‘Double Obsession: Seki, Sada and Oshima’, Catherine Russell describes it as an “indictment of the forces of repression.”
Empire of Passion is additionally an amalgam of extraordinary seasonal compositions, with Oshima re-imagining the natural world not merely as a backdrop for the action but as a reflection of and retribution for the horror caused by human depravity. With its pristine restoration and bold, startling imagery the film has a very contemporary sheen, yet its story has a classical quality; as well as evoking traditional Japanese tales of the supernatural, it recalls Shakespeare with his wronged spectres and portentous elemental forces.
Empire of Passion is set in rural Japan; captions give the year as 1895. The film opens with a haunting orchestral composition, unmistakably miring us in the supernatural. This effective melody accompanies footage of a middle-aged man, Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura), pulling a rickshaw, wearing an expression which can be easily, if anomalously, interpreted as intense fear.
What immediately follows fails to make sense of his apparent fright, as the ominous opening leads to a reassuring domestic scenario with Gisaburo returning home to his seemingly devoted, nurturing spouse, Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki). However, marital strife is on the horizon with the introduction of the young, impulsive Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), who has clearly set his sights on Seki.
This infatuation results in an extremely unsettling incident of sexual violence as Toyoji forces himself on Seki; she struggles and, as her child weeps, shields her ears from her infant’s cries. Lying back, she appears to submit to the assault. The film proceeds to disturbingly interpret this violence as something of a sexual awakening, showing Seki subsequently as wanton and willing.
Though Seki is reluctant, Toyoji quickly coerces her into a plot to murder her husband, an action which she responds to with great distress. As the story progresses and she is increasingly in the grip of desperation, grief and isolation she is portrayed as comparably sexually aggressive.
The relationship between the Toyoji and Seki is deeply unpleasant; a twisted, destructive affair. The sex between the lovers is animalistic, urgent and violent and through its untamed character it ties them to the natural world; they make love in the inhospitable woods, or covered in dirt and in another sequence their locked bodies are framed by rays of sunlight which penetrate the flimsy shack.
The wild, timely weather creates the impression that their actions are intrinsically linked to their surroundings. It turns cold as their plotting reaches its fruition – as the temperature plummets, and snow falls down, her husband can literally feel the chill of their conniving and thus the immanency of his own death. He comments that it feels “like something bad is going to happen.” His ability to intuit messages from the elements aligns him with the natural world.
Though Seki and Toyoji’s actions are reflected by the elements, these do not favour them. Storms rage and rain beats down as they hungrily embrace. Thick fog accompanies the spectral Gisaburo’s torture of Seki. Toyoji gathers fallen autumn leaves from the forest to throw down the well where Gisaburo’s corpse has been concealed in order to cover up and/or ritualise the crime; but it is this action that exposes their hiding place. Nature betrays and chastises them.
In line with this interpretation, Seki is presented to us as a freak of nature, remarkably defying the aging process to appear decades younger than her years. She is marked out as against the natural order of things from the outset; tempting a man 26 years her junior and bearing a child in her late 40s.
In addition, Seki’s weakness and inability to resist the bullying, impulsive Toyoji are punished most viciously. The elements turn on her relentlessly, driving her to hysteria. Despite his premeditation and violent manipulation Toyoji is not visited by Gisaburo’s apparition, initially at least, and he comments “Gisaburo’s ghost never appears to me. I wonder why”.
Furthermore, by tearing asunder her marriage and neglecting her offspring we are shown that Seki has, by extension, attacked the premise of the family home. Thus its very structure becomes enemy to her, aligning itself with the elemental ghost of her husband who is free to enter and frighten her at will. Seki is no longer afforded the protection the family home should provide as she has compromised her own safety with her duplicity. In this way, Empire of Passion challenges the security of the home, exposing the fragility of its boundaries.
Toyoji too easily spies on the family through a torn panel in the wall and walks in through open doors; invading the sanctity of the home and destroying that of the marriage. Later her abode affords Seki little protection from the threat of the outside world and the elements which, in this case, include the supernatural. The sides of the house come effortlessly crashing down during the police raid, spearheaded by the merciless, monstrous Officer Hotta (Takuzo Kawatani).
However, when a fire threatens Seki these confines become difficult for Toyoji to penetrate and it hinders her rescue – harbouring the fire as it rages within. Her home becomes complicit in the retribution.
The lovers’ sexual desire is connected to their crime – in their relationship sex and violence are uneasily intertwined from the outset and subsequent liaisons are unnervingly fuelled by the murderous brutality that binds them. Seki’s orgasmic cries are indistinguishable from howls of anguish.
On one occasion Seki makes the plea, “kill me in my sleep” and on another they discuss the state of her husband’s corpse during sex. The pair were literally connected by a cord that they jointly tightened around her husband’s throat and they continue to be inescapably bound together by that action. This repeated association has the inevitable impact of ceaselessly condemning them.
As part of Oshima’s defence in the obscenity suit brought against him after the publication of the book version of In the Realm of the Senses, he wrote, with regards to the two stories’ female protagonists:
I am here for love, out of love for suffering women like O-Sada and O-Seki. I firmly believe that it is precisely for the sake of women like them that freedom of sexual expression must be expanded and, eventually totally secured.
He believed that since his female protagonists were, as Catherine Russell describes them, “agents in their own downfalls” rather than passive victims, this somewhat empowers them. Russell also describes how Oshima saw female sexuality as “the most dynamic form of resistance in an oppressive society.”
However, as my above reading of Empire of Passion illustrates, his treatment of his female lead in this instance betrays misogyny and his supposed love for this character fails to shine through the assaults he inflicts upon her from all quarters: she is terrorised by a psychotic lover; derided by villagers; shunned by her daughter; and persecuted by the elements.
Although Seki and Toyoji are ultimately shown as martyrs during their final barbaric punishment at the hands of the police, this more redemptive viewpoint is fleeting (and a long time coming) and the nature of their relationship—initiated by rape and rooted in violence—is terrifically unsettling in the main.
Kazuko Yoshiyuki as Seki. Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection
Perhaps it is the case that Oshima’s characters are merely intended as conduits for his directorial viewpoint; allegorical characterisations whose brutal treatment is intended as a scathing attack directed toward a puritanical society who Oshima feels have judged him too harshly. If so, I’m afraid he has failed to differentiate his own voice from the opinions he may seek to deride. For all his visual flair as a director – and this he has in spades – he has failed to construct a coherent, emotionally engaging piece and I fear these failings may cause the film to alienate viewers.
The special features are reasonably modest but enlightening with regards to the directorial intention, and offer contrasting interpretations to the one I have put forth. Criterion has specially commissioned interviews with lead actors Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tatsuya Fuji, both of whom provide frank recollections.
Extraordinarily the sequence where Seki and Toyoji are hung from a tree and beaten by police officers was far from make-believe. Since Tatsuya was nursing an injury after another all-too-real attempt to break down a door, the actors wielding the branches were instructed to concentrate on Yoshiyuki, beating her unconscious in the process.
The abandoned village where the shoot was located is revealed as having been genuinely unsettling due to the difficult terrain and presence of multitudes of bugs and bees. And after divulging such information Kazuko goes on to understandably comment that “For me Empire of Passion was its own world. Inside that world, I feel like I really lived that moment.”
In addition, members of the crew give their side of the story, so to speak. Assistant director Yusoko Norito describes how he believes that the furore which surrounded In the Realm of the Senses did not lead to Empire of Passion being toned down and that instead, with the latter, Oshima’s intention was to explore a different kind of love, one that existed “outside the bedroom”.
Catherine Russell’s aforementioned video essay is a fascinating addition, comparing Empire of Passion and In the Realm of the Senses. However, since the earlier film is not included in this package it is somewhat frustrating to not be able to compare for oneself.
There is also a booklet which contains both an old interview with Oshima and an informative article “Love’s Phantom” by Tony Rayns, in which he reveals that Empire of Passion wasn’t considered sexually sordid enough by its French producer Anatole Dauman who called-off Oshima’s three picture deal. A dated trailer completes the set.