Empire of Passions: pedestrian story saved by beautiful visuals and psychological character study

Nagisa Oshima, “Empire of Passions” (1978)

By coincidence, when I saw this film the first time early in 2010, I had just finished reading “Therese Raquin”, a psychological novel by late 19th century French writer Emile Zola, and I have to admit I failed to see the similarities between the two at the time. Although the novel is not the source inspiration for the film, there is a similar basic idea: a woman and her lover plot to kill her husband, they carry out the deed in a way so as to ensure there are no witnesses, and for the rest of the story, the murderers suffer pangs of guilt either openly or indirectly and their guilty consciences lead them to act out certain behaviours or say things that arouse the attentions and suspicions of others. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Oshima has fleshed out the plot into a mix of story genres – traditional Japanese ghost horror story meets modern thriller with a psychology study thrown in – that may comment on the impact of Western rationality and police-state control, as exemplified by the soldier lover and the police officer who investigates the crime, on a traditional easy-going and spontaneous rural society with its particular set of values as exemplified by the unfaithful wife.

The film revolves mainly around the two lovers, soldier Toyoji (Tatsuya Fujii, who appeared in Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” prior to making “Empire of Passions”), who relies on reason and experience; and Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) who, in spite of her mature years, being old enough to be Toyoji’s mother, retains her youthful looks and figure and a naive, morally flexible and child-like approach to life that Toyoji takes advantage of to seduce her. Viewers may sense that Seki’s life with her rickshaw-driver husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) is in some ways unfulfilling: her personal needs and desires go unspoken and unsatisfied as she is kept busy looking after hubby and two kids and working for the landlord in his fields and kitchen. I can’t help but compare Seki with the “good girl” characters in Danish director Lars von Trier’s trilogy of films about self-sacrificing heroines (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) in which the good women live in or come from situations of isolation – and you could argue Seki herself has lived in isolation of a sort, as a woman married to a poor man in a rural community sidetracked by Japan’s industrialisation in the 1890’s – and are so innocent and naive that they readily agree to be co-opted by their men into behaviour and actions that lead to their downfall (cruel, violent death or family ostracism). The difference is that Seki comes to regret her actions and is tormented by the murder. Why Seki would want to throw away her settled, comfortable if hard-working family life for a man with no job prospects and who rapes her, mutilates her by shaving her and then forces her to co-operate in the murder of her husband and his body’s disposal, is never adequately answered in the film. One assumes that the position of women in rural Japan in the late nineteenth century was so dreadfully low that women like Seki were completely lacking in self-esteem and control over their lives and bodies to the extent that others had more rights to their reproductive systems than they themselves did.

Toyoji himself is a puzzle: having been discharged from the army, he’s only interested in having a good time and in preying on Seki’s generous nature and innocence, only to become disinterested in her after murdering her husband. Oshima offers no explanation as to why his behaviour towards Seki changes. Toyoji appears to have no qualms about murdering Gisaburo but his constant repetitive actions in visiting the well where Gisaburo’s body lies and dumping leaves there might well suggest guilt. Even his apparent disinterest in Seki may reflect his guilt: if he and Seki were to be seen together by the neighbours after Gisaburo’s disappearance, the community might well add two and two together and come up with five, and so he and she must wait for as long as they can (if necessary, for years) before they can be seen together openly. Another interpretation of Toyoji’s character is that he’s simply being rational in insisting on waiting and not appearing to be a couple. As it is, three years after the murder, various folks including Seki’s daughter Oshin report being visited in their dreams by Gisaburo and these reports play on Seki’s mind sufficiently that she starts to see Gisaburo’s ghost regularly at nights. Understandably Seki is frightened enough to want to stay with Toyoji; when he rebuffs her, she responds by trying to burn herself and the family home.

In the meantime police inspector Hotta (Takuzo Kawatani) arrives to investigate Gisaburo’s disappearance and the various rumours that he has been murdered. Unfortunately the film pays little attention to the way he conducts his investigations, apart from his eavesdropping on Seki and Toyoji one evening, though it’s not much of a surprise to viewers when he has enough evidence to indict Seki and Toyoji. It’s almost as if Hotta and the police authorities decided that Gisaburo was murdered, and that Toyoji and Seki are his killers, and all they need do is collect or even fabricate evidence to clear up the matter. Since Hotta enters the film around the half-way mark, the plot might have worked better if Hotta’s point of view had become dominant: viewers would have been able to follow Hotta eavesdropping on the couple, observing Toyoji and Seki going out to the well, and writing up his thoughts and opinions about the two acting in ways that suggest their guilt and shame. The police then would have a better case to prosecute Toyoji and Seki, and their torture of the two to force their confessions could still take place and appear all the more cruel (because it’s not necessary). Indeed, telling the story from Hotta’s point of view could reinforce Oshima’s message about late 19th century Japan becoming a more military and fascistic society, because Hotta himself would be the mouthpiece for the selective mix of extreme neo-Confucianist and Western, specifically Prussian, ideologies that became the basis for the Japanese imperialist police state of the early 20th century.

Away from the pedestrian plot which leaves a lot unexplained and therefore is open to numerous interpretations, the film is mainly remarkable for its investigation of Seki’s psychological state after the murder and for its depictions of the changing seasons, particularly of the snowy winter backdrop against which Gisaburo’s murder is committed, and of the spring and summer periods during which time community rumours about Gisaburo’s disappearance gestate and are made known to Seki. The cycle of the seasons demonstrates how Seki and Toyoji become trapped, physically as well as psychologically, by their actions with the implication that eventually their crime will lead to an even more base crime (the killing of the landlord) and the two must face punishment with no hope of forgiveness or redemption. The ghost story element is actually less important than the police investigation but it does make for a chilling moment where Seki in her growing mental torment accepts a ride from the ghostly Gisaburo in his rickshaw and he gets lost taking her home.

The film is a companion piece to Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” and was his reply to the outrage that accompanied the earlier film’s release for its controversial plot, based on an actual incident, of a gangster and his lover who engaged in sadomasochistic sex. In that particular film, the sex served as a metaphor for the individual’s revolt against a repressive and increasingly militaristic society.

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