Empire of Passion
Directed by Nagisa Oshima
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 105 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese, English
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: April 28, 2009
Review Date: April 19, 2009
Mix some supernatural ghostly hauntings with the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and you have a rough idea of the gist of Nagisa Oshima’s Empire of Passion. His follow-up film to the controversial and graphically sexual In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion despite its title portrays its passion in much more conventional cinematic ways, and its melodramatic story of overwhelming emotions leading lovers to bad ends is overly familiar. What sets Empire of Passion apart is its director’s unique approach to imagery, framing the betrayals and guilt in a montage of seasonal pictorials that stun with their poetic beauty.
Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), the wife of humble rickshaw driver Ginsburg (Takahiro Tamura), is raped by shiftless villager Toyoji (Tatsuya Fugi), a young man almost half the age of Seki. Later, however, she responds to his ardent feelings and the two engage in an affair. Driven mad with his passion for Seki, Toyoji proposes that they kill Ginsburg and bury his body in an old well. After they do this, however, and concoct a story of Ginsburg going to Tokyo to ply his trade there, three years pass at which time Seki, her children, and the other villagers who were friends of the slain rickshaw driver began seeing ghostly manifestations of the dead man either in front of their eyes or in their dreams. Soon tongues begin to wag in the village suspecting that Seki has in some way brought about her husband’s end, and the couple begin to panic from their own guilt and from the fear that inquisitive villagers might bring in the police to investigate Ginsburg’s disappearance.
Oshima’s script based on the book by Itoko Nakamura isn’t particularly satisfying either in its portrayal of this passionate affair or in its guilt-ridden aftermath. We’re not clued in to what transpires during the three years between the murder and the first appearances of the ghost. Has the couple been secretly meeting or have they remained apart to quell suspicions about them, especially since the villagers all assume Ginsburg is still alive and simply away from home? Unless we’re meant to take the ghost literally, we’re assuming the apparition is merely a fixation in the minds of the guilty parties (though Seki’s children also claim to have seen it, and they have nothing to feel guilty about). Seki’s extreme reactions, however, border on ludicrous, and if anyone in the village had suspicions about her, Seki’s moaning, screeching, and wide-eyed terror would certainly make her even more a person of interest to the police. Where Oshima shines, however, is in the ravishing displays of Japan’s seasons caught as backdrops to this melodramatic story of a love affair gone sour. Winter and autumn scenes in particular have such majesty that the petty perils of these libelous lovers seem diminished by nature’s beauty and power. As for the lovemaking scenes, they’re much more discreetly filmed than those of his previous film In the Realm of the Senses. The emotions for the sets of lovers in both films are extreme and well conveyed, but the more subdued filming of the sex acts here sets this film apart from its more graphic sibling.
Tatsuya Fugi played the male lead in both In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion, but in this film, his much more devil-may-care character both appeals and repels. It’s easy to understand the allure of this rakish young man to the much older Seki, and despite a lot of whining and squirming by Kazuko Yoshiyuki, the actress does impart both her surrender to her passion and her innate terror of discovery well. Takuzo Kawatani has some near-slapstick moments of inanity as a police officer investigating the disappearance (yes, the film manages to work in several comedic scenes amid the hand wringing and screaming) while Masami Hasegawa has quiet dignity as Seki’s daughter Shin who finally leaves home once she figures out what has happened.
The film’s 1.66:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is presented intact here and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Overall, it’s a beautiful transfer with striking color and rich levels for both blacks and whites amid strong levels of contrast. In a couple of shots, there is a softness with some smearing that clashes with the rest of the transfer, but the encode is nevertheless free from any dirt or debris to conflict with the pristine appearance. This looks as if it could have been filmed yesterday. The white subtitles are easy to read, and the film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track again provides a surprisingly robust soundfield for the mix of dialogue, effects, and music. There is no annoying hiss or flutter to distract from the viewer’s enjoyment of the movie. The disc also provides an English language dubbed track, but I must confess I didn’t listen to it except to check that it was there.
A 2008 interview with stars Tatsuya Fugi and Kazuko Yoshiyuki is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The two actors look back on the film with fondness (they had co-starred in quite a few films together) and describe how the film was shot over the course of a year to get the seasonal conditions that the director wanted. This featurette lasts 17 minutes.
“Empire of Passion: On the Set” is a 13 ¼-minute set of interviews with production assistants Koji Wakamatsu, Yusuke Narita, and Yoichi Sai discussing working with Oshima after his enduring the obscenity trial for the book version of his film In the Realm of the Senses. Filmed in 2003, this is framed at 4:3.
“Double Obsession: Seki, Sada, and Oshima” is film professor Catherine Russell’s 20 ¼-minute video essay comparing the themes and executions of two of Oshima’s most famous works In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion. It’s in anamorphic widescreen.
The U.S. theatrical trailer for the film is presented in nonanamorphic letterbox and runs 2 minutes.
The enclosed 29-page booklet contains some marvelous stills from the movie, the cast and crew lists, an informative essay on the film by critic Tony Rayns, and a 1978 interview with the director conducted by Michael Henry.
Nagisa Oshima won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival for Empire of Passion, and it’s clear that his sensitive, intricate direction for the movie is leagues ahead of his somewhat lackluster screenplay for the film. That said, it’s an interesting take on an otherwise fairly traditional tale of infidelity and its doomed aftermath. For those like me who hadn’t seen the follow-up to In the Realm of the Senses, it’s certainly worth a peep.