A married woman murders her husband together with her lover and dumps his body in a well. Gradually, their downfall begins when, after a while, the husband’s spirit returns.
Michael Henry: What kind of a link do you see between Empire of Passion and In the Realm of the Senses? Did you get the idea of a diptych as you were developing the new project, or did it happen progressively as you were directing it?
Nagisa Ôshima: It’s completely normal for a filmmaker to bathe more than once in the same spring. And the close relationship you mention does indeed seem to exist. Just as in In the Realm of the Senses, the story is about a man and a woman who do not hesitate in aligning their daily existence with their deepest sexual urges. Nowadays, nothing interests me quite as much as approaching the various forms that love can take with people who can only be saved by that love.
In Senses, the lovers created from start to finish–and with such supreme refinement–the voluptuous world that united them until the voluntary death of Kichi. Whereas in Passion, the couple seem to be the victim of their own desires and fantasies. The passion between Seki and Toyoji is depicted as a descent into hell. Is this the fate of adulterous love in the era in which the story is rooted? Or do you think that love in and of itself carries a tragic fate?
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.
Michael Henry in conversation with Nagisa Ôshima1
“The visual idiom that Oshima chose for Empire of Passion does evoke the horror movie tradition with its swirling mists and chiaroscuro lighting, but only to emphasize how far the film is from any generic roots. In his early films, Ôshima had tried out both a realist idiom and a kind of theatrical stylization, but since the start of the Sozo-sha period, he had opted for something more fluid and less easy to pin down: his films were generally rooted in recognizable social realities–indeed, often based on news stories–into which he added individual and collective fantasies, leaving the viewer to decide whether it made any sense to distinguish between the two. His model, probably, was the surrealist Buñuel. Empire of Passion is true to this pattern. It’s set at a very specific historical moment, just after the first Sino-Japanese War, and shows rural life beginning to feel the effects of central government for the first time. Discharged soldiers like Toyoji return to their communities with ‘alien’ ideas and attitudes, village life is suddenly policed, and traditional ways of life are about to be challenged by such notions as ‘democracy’ and compulsory education. Using Nagatsuka’s novel as his sourcebook, Oshima shows both domestic life and the workings of the 1895 rural economy in great detail–and then complicates the picture by exploring the central characters’ private passions. In this context, the appearances of Gisaburo’s ghost are not horror movie scares but testimony to the village’s barely submerged dream life.”
- 1. “Empire of Passion: Interview with Nagisa Ôshima,” The Criterion Collection, 29 April 2009. Originally published in Positif, May 1978.
- 2. Tony Rayns, “Empire of Passion: Love’s Passion,” The Criterion Collection, 27 April 2009.