Empire of Passion (1978, Nagisa Oshima)

Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuko of Lady Snowblood 2, Kikujiro) is married to a decent guy, the town’s rickshaw driver Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura of 24 Eyes, Seisaku’s Wife), but young Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji, the killer’s father in Bright Future) falls in love with her and ruins all that. One night, in an unexpectedly frank bit of sexuality (later note: not frank at ALL after watching In the Realm of the Senses), he’s going down on her and orders her to shave. A couple hours later he matter-of-factly tells her that since she’s shaved, her husband will suspect them, so they’d better kill him. So they do, strangling the guy and dropping him down a well. Three years later the townspeople haven’t seen their taxi driver around but his ghost has been spotted, Toyoji seems to spend an awful lot of time at Seki’s house and is seen lingering at the well, Seki’s daughter is asking questions and nobody doubts what’s going on… only a matter of time before the cops (led by Takuzo Kawatani of The Burmese Harp and Battles Without Honor & Humanity) catch up and hang ’em. But things get worse before that – Toyoji kills the young master of the property where he works and Seki goes blind.

As with Senses, this is based on a true murder from 1896. This one has more town life in it, more theatrically heightened colors, maybe more traditionally studio-looking shots. A very Japanese (pre-Ring) ghost, Gisaburo dressed as he was when he died with an all-white face, wordless. Some wonderful shots from inside the well, as seen on the box art. I failed to get screen shots, so I’ve stolen a couple from DVD Beaver. I liked the movie a whole lot… not a groundbreaking story, but well told with a nice visual style.


If I may quote heavily from Tony Rayns’ great essay:

What intrigued Oshima so much in the story of Gisaburo and Seki? First and foremost, the fact that it bore witness to an eruption of amour fou in a social setting where such passions were previously unrecorded. Western literature from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century—from Geoffrey Chaucer to Émile Zola—had acknowledged and explored the sex lives of the rural peasant class, but there was no real Japanese equivalent; the bawdy fiction of the Edo period had dealt exclusively with the love lives of the samurai and merchant classes. Oshima responded to the factual account of a torrid affair between a married mother of two and a recently discharged soldier twenty-six years her junior. … He recognized the story as an interesting counterpoint to the one he had told in In the Realm of the Senses. Sada and Kichi had retreated from the increasingly militarized Japan of 1936 into a private world powered by their own sexual fantasies; Seki and her lover, Toyoji, lived out their adulterous passion in a world circumscribed by the laws of nature and the rural traditions of village life. For Oshima, the key element in the story was their defiance: the realization that their affair and their murder of Seki’s husband would be exposed rekindled their passion and made them recklessly indifferent to their punishment.

Oshima has said that he reads the tradition of vengeful spooks as a phenomenon related to the militarist code of Bushido—which he has always vehemently rejected. He sees Gisaburo’s ghost as coming from somewhere very different; he once told me, “The ghost in Empire of Passion is a farmer’s idea of a ghost, not a samurai’s.” Gisaburo, in fact, accepts his sad fate as passively as Kichi succumbed to Sada’s murderous fantasies in In the Realm of the Senses. He doesn’t return to the village as a ghost because he wants revenge but because he’s an unquiet spirit; he appears beside his old rickshaw because he wants to go on serving his wife and the villagers, and beside the hearth in his old home because he still wants the comforts of a pot of warmed shochu liquor. He represents, of course, the guilty conscience of his murderers, not assuaged by emptying dead leaves into the well where his body was dumped, and the collective disquiet of the community that a crime has gone unpunished.

Where is Oshima himself in all of this? … The figure he is closest to is the village’s young master, who also represents the author in Nagatsuka’s novel; he’s the most educated person in the community, the most clear-sighted, and the most ineffectual. First seen at his wedding ceremony, he’s played by Kawarazaki Kenzo, the same actor who stood in for Oshima in the tortured family saga The Ceremony. The young master stands for modernization and “progressive” ideas, but he’s fated to be silenced by an ex-soldier who can think no further than self-preservation. The character’s death suggests that the pessimism that led Oshima to abandon filmmaking in the early 1970s was undimmed.



The space in Senses was delineated by the different rooms of love. It was artificially created, completely designed for voluptuousness. On the other hand, in Passion it is all about nature. Seki has a house where she lives with her husband, and Toyoji a small hovel that he shares with his young brother. Neither of these places is artificial. The two lovers live in fear because they constantly feel threatened by nature. I am trying to depict the human condition in its primal stage. In that sense, my new film goes back to the roots of all life, much more deeply than Senses ever did. The lovers seem cast into hell because of their sexual urges, but in my opinion, the rumbling of the earth, the murmur of the wind, the rustling of the trees, the songs of the birds and insects, in short, all of nature, is guiding the couple into hell. And the ghost itself is part of nature. Neither sex nor love has any meaning. Life itself has no meaning. And if it doesn’t have meaning, isn’t it hell? All I can do is express and project before you this human life devoid of any meaning, this hell that for me is always beautiful.

I found, several years after directing my first films, that I was very attracted to these two topics, sex and crime. Subsequently, my films have addressed them in a very analytic way. Today, I’m at a stage where I simply like to project the naked reality of sex and crime before the spectator’s eyes.