08/11/2010 Leave a comment
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Runtime: 104 minutes
Starring: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Tatsuya Fuji, Takahiro Tamura, Takuzo Kawatani, Akiko Koyama
Theme: Romance/Erotica, Crime
1978 Cannes Film Festival
1978 Cannes Film Festival: Best Director
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Music Score
1978 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or
1979 Japanese Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film, Best Lighting, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actress
The Empire of Passion (1978) is Japan’s official submission to the 51st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film award, although it missed out on a nomination in the end. Yet the controversial director did pickup the Best Director gong at Cannes for this film. It is definitely noteworthy this is Oshima’s follow-up film to In the Realm of the Senses (1976), the film that directly taunts the censorship board with full-frontal explicit nudity, unsimulated sexual sequences and several unflinching bone chilling scenes that involve the shoving of a hard-boiled egg up a woman’s vagina and the severance of a man’s penis in its full glory. Comparatively, Empire of Passion is a much milder offering, though the international attention that In the Realm of the Senses received would definitely have helped thrust—no pun intended—The Empire of Passion into international spotlight. It is noteworthy that Director Oshima opts to keep faith with the male lead from In the Realm of the Senses, Tatsuya Fuji, who plays the protagonist in this film as well. There is this innate physical quality to Fuji’s look that makes his portrayal of the attractive, horny, philandering male so alluring and convincing – he turned in a decent performance as the master who falls in love with his servant in In the Realm of the Senses, and was equally convincing here as the young man who falls for – and rapes — a much older woman in this film.
The Empire of Passion is also Oshima’s only foray into “horror” in his prolific filmography, with the supernatural elements involved that yields an arresting mix that involve eroticism as well. The ghastly appearances of the deceased husband create several spooky moments that can rival those in a full-fledged horror movie that Japan would become famous for several decades later. Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is a 41-year-old working-class mother who falls in love with the 26-year-old Toyoji (Fuji), and they begin an affair surreptitiously behind the back of her rickshaw-puller husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) away from the watchful eyes of the close-knit village. Their initial exchanges were that of open flirting, and when Gisaburo at one point of time questioned whether Toyoji might have taken a fancy for Seki, became more discreet. One day, Toyoji forced himself on Seki in a rape sequence that ended in Seki relishing the process and desiring for more, as opposed to the conventional norms of hysteria that rape victims typically end up in. That marked the turning point as they grew closer and closer in an infidelity that sees them having coitus much more often and eventually indulging in erotic behavior. Toyoji “shaves” Seki clean, and they hatch a plot to murder Gisaburo when it becomes apparent that he would probably notice something amiss. Gisaburo’s body was dumped into an old, unused well and the couple goes on their adulterous ways after his death, not expecting that rumors surrounding his sudden disappearance would resurface three years later. Apparently Seki’s story that he had gone to work in Tokyo was flawed, and no one in the village was buying it.
The Empire of Passion explores themes like guilt, passion and dishonesty, especially that of how passion can easily convince people into unthinkingly performing immoral acts. Oshima’s unrelenting close-ups and style leads me on a guilt trip where I actually empathize with the adulterous couple, rather than cast a judgmental eye on them. They want each other so badly, but unfortunately fall prey to societal norms and pressures. The director’s mastery of skill becomes apparent from the way he deals with stereotypes and conventions that prevail in such a movie. In fact, the climax is pretty much expected, though he deals with clichés in an alternative manner that sees the introduction of supernatural beings in a context that does not seem ludicrous. In fact, the “ghosts” may not even have been real as per an archetypical horror movie, but rather the “ghosts of Seki’s past” manifesting as she allows the rumors that are flooding around the village and her immense guilt in her hand at murdering her husband to take reign over her psychological senses. We notice how the pair struggle to come up with cover-up stories the more they lose their head, to which Seki’s chaste and non-manipulative nature shines through from her unwillingness to lie and her inflexibility to deal with the murder in the moments after it happened. Toyoji himself is not as headstrong as he seems, and the guilt he suffers manifests in a bizarre habit that sees him returning to the well the infidel couple disposed the body off in to throw in dead leaves, handful by handful.
This is a humble tale by Japanese folklore standards, and a far cry from the big-budgeted Godzilla films that have thrust Japanese cinema into global spotlight by that point of time. Oshima delivers, through stunning luscious shots, a breathtaking tale of sex, lust and passion. It is hard not to draw Freudian references to the film. Eros and Thanatos are prevalent in the movie as love and death take centerstage. Further, there exists a compelling Oedipal desire between the 26-year-old Toyoji and the 41-year-old Seki – the 15-year-old age gap making Seki scientifically old enough to be Toyoji’s mother. We see this manifesting in a scene where Toyoji chides Seki for breast-feeding her baby son and wondering when he will ever get his turn. In a reversal of conventions from the typical femme fatale that sees a female villain turning on sexual desires in the male, we see a male disrupting the nature of the family and society in The Empire of Passion.
The love surrounding the couple is bittersweet – beginning with a romance that would not be incongruous in a Shakespearean play and culminating in a psychological drama full of remorse, guilt, anguish and fear as the spirit of the wronged bites back.