I decided to jump into an untouched corner of my Criterion collection by watching Empire of Passion, a film directed by Nagisa Ōshima that I purchased earlier this summer based solely on reading the film’s summary and being intrigued by it. This is one of the most relatively recent Japanese films in my collection, and I don’t think going in that I was completely prepared for how different Empire of Passion would look from a Japanese film that was made, say, in the early 1960s. Because it is certainly different from other period films that I’ve seen before.
To start with, Empire of Passion is set in 19th-century Japan (the story begins in 1895) and tells the story of a wife named Seki and a former Army soldier named Toyoji and how their illicit love affair slowly tears their lives apart. The lynchpin to all of this is the foul murder of Gisaburo, Seki’s husband. From then on, it’s a slow but steady decline into tragedy as the consequences of Seki and Toyoji’s actions ultimately catch up with them.
It’s fascinating watching the start of the affair between Seki and Toyoji. Even though Toyoji is clearly taking advantage of Seki (including raping her several times in rather disturbing scenes), Seki herself doesn’t seem at all inclined to fight back or reassert control (her denials are half-hearted at best). Indeed, Seki, as far as I could make out, seemed ultimately content for the first half of the film to just let things happen to her. When Toyoji states that Gisaburo must die, Seki doesn’t even blink an eye at the suggestion. It’s unsettling, and that was probably the intention of the director.
If you’re watching Empire of Passion for the ghost story elements, be patient, it does take a while to get there. But once it gets going…oh boy, does it ever. The ghost segments are unnerving, often coming out of nowhere, and one scene (Seki takes a ghostly ride in a rickshaw) had the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. You literally feel pulled into the growing madness surrounding Seki and Toyoji as the story pushes on towards its inevitable conclusion. One of my favorite elements in this whole story is the old well, which has a much larger role in this story than I ever suspected. I liked the shots of snow and leaves falling in from the top of the well, they’re beautiful and more than a little ominous at the same time.
There’s one moment I didn’t like at all, and that’s late in the film when Seki is unexpectedly blinded. The instant before it happens there’s a split-second take where you see pine needles pressing into Seki’s eyes (but it cuts away before any damage is done). The moment is so unsettling, and for me a little out of left field. I get that Seki is being punished for her part in the murder, but being blinded?? Also, speaking of punishment, I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that most of these ghostly occurrences happen to Seki. She didn’t act alone, shouldn’t Toyoji be tormented just as much? The retribution seems somewhat lopsided to me.
Ultimately, I think I liked watching Empire of Passion, even if the ending did seem somewhat abrupt. I didn’t like it as much as earlier Japanese films in my collection, but I’m still glad I saw it because it’s important to watch a range of films to better understand the genre.
Let me know what you think about Empire of Passion in the comments below and have a great day!
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