Re-blogged from JapanCinema.net
When is a ghost story not a ghost story? This is the question that kept coming to mind as I watched Nagisa Ôshima’s lone foray into the kaidan genre of Japanese ghost stories. Empire of Passion is based on an actual report: the murder of a rickshaw driver by his wife and her young lover in a remote village in late 19th-century Japan. The film begins with a classic kaidan setup of sexual transgression and murder, which produces a ghost who we expect will return to wreak vengeance. Gisaburo is an ordinary rickshaw puller who is faithfully served by his wife Seki until she becomes infatuated, raped, then falls in love with an ex-soldier named Toyoji who comes to the village. Toyoji is 26 years her junior, and becomes sexually obsessed with the older woman. They strangle Gisaburo as he lies in a drunken stupor, then throw his body in a well and begin a secret affair while pretending that Gisaburo has gone to Tokyo to find work.
So far, so good – ghost story expectations met enjoyably. But when Gisaburo inevitably returns as a ghost, he does not want vengeance at all. As in life, as a ghost Gisaburo only wants the comfort of clean clothes, warmth, food, shochu to drink, and to go home with Seki. He continues to pull his apparition rickshaw, and its ever-turning wheel is a potent symbol of the futility of endless work, village life, and the static. For a while it seems as if Empire of Passion is going to be about the mundane horror of being deprived of everyday life: food, companionship, home. Seki too is tormented by something ordinary, which in her case is being alone. When a police officer from outside the village arrives to investigate rumors of a murder and a ghost, Toyoji and Seki must stop seeing each other. She is nearly driven mad by the separation and loneliness, and at one point even wants to go with the ghost Gisaburo rather than be left alone. To die is preferable, and in one scene she refuses to leave her burning home to save herself before being rescued.
Knowing how the film is likely to end doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Toyoji kills again to silence a witness who saw him repeatedly throwing leaves down the well where the body is hidden. Seki convinces Toyoji to try and get the body out of the well to hide it, which gives us the film’s one true moment of horror. The pair descend down an orifice-like well and dig through an excremental soup to try and find the body. Gisaburo appears above and drops leaves on them as if they were the dead, then sends bamboo shoots that pierce Seki’s eyes and make her blind. The pair manage to return home to be seized by Officer Hotta, the buffoonish police officer. A strikingly beautiful scene finds the two sitting naked in each other’s arms surrounded by rays of light. They are hung from a tree and beaten until they confess, then taken away and executed.
Empire of Passion is really a story of sexual taboo masquerading as a ghost story. Adultery, masochism, and sexual obsession rule Seki and Toyoji’s lives. It is unclear if Ôshima wanted us to consider transgressive sexuality as politically liberating, but he certainly shows us primal desires thwarted not by a ghost, but by the Japanese state and its enforced morality. This is no surprise, perhaps, given that the director’s previous film In the Realm of the Senses was banned for being sexually explicit. These questions aside, Empire of Passion is masterful because of how Ôshima uses cinematography to dramatize structural oppositions – inside vs. outside; warm vs. cold, responsibility vs. choice, trapped vs. free, village vs. state – at the same time that he remakes the kaidan genre and challenges us to think about the limits and norms of acceptable sexuality.