The Empire of the Passions: Japan at its most passionate.
I saw Norwegian Wood earlier this year, and enjoyed it very much. It’s a beautiful film, made in Japan, sourced from Japan’s greatest living writer, made by a Vietnamese filmmaker. I also watched Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, a Japanese film starring Western actors made by a Japanese director. In the case of Tran Anh Hung, I now belive I saw an outsider portraying Japan as he wishes it were. When I see a film like Empire of the Passions, I think of the intensity that the Japanese long (do) to embody.
Lets face it, all races on the earth look to other nations as the embodiment of real sensuality. For many British, it was 1940’s and 1950’s America that personified the passions. For Antipodean cultures such as my own, the French, Spanish and Italians have owned ‘passion’. For many the traditional ideals of the painted and disciplined ‘restraint’ of the Japanese samurai and the geisha have embodied passion. For the spiritually inclined, India held the ‘key’ to the lighter and the darker sides of the ‘real’. Even my own culture, with its vast orange untamed deserts, its smoldering jackeroos and masculanised culture suggests a unfetterd sensuality. For every culture, some other culture has represented the ‘Empire of the Passions.’
Films like In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of the Passions show a darker side of Japanese culture that is not one we outsiders equate with Japan. We prefer to think of the Murakami world of restraint. The Empire of the Passions shows a different Japan.
The Empire of the Passion is primarily the story of Seki, a 40 something year old wife of an elderly man. ‘Little Seki’ as she is called by the townspeople is mother to two young children, and although initially ambitious, has learnt to ‘curb’ her desires for a life for herself by becoming a devoted wife and mother. Toyoji is a soldier returned from war. he pays a great deal of attention to the much older but still very attractive Seki – probably pout of boredom. But as the couple embrace their relationship and start to take risks with exposure, they decide they will kill the old man, Seki’s husband, and toss him down the deepest well they can find. This they do together. Three years later we find Toyoji has grown quite bored of Seki and is visiting her less. But when the ghost of Sekis dead husband starts to appear in some horrific scenes, the couple rekindle their desire for each other, and in fact find the original passion that caused them to commit the ultimate sin in the first place. Eventually both will decide to turn themselves in to spare the other, a person for whom they feel so intensely, they don’t care in any what happens to themselves or to anyone else. The terrible consequences of their capture inform us the suppression and punishment of transgressive passion are to Oshima the real horror story.
Behind the story of the lovers and their crimes are the changing face of a military Japan. Changes in the weather are important to the story as well, as it is the elements that will force the lovers to act in certain ways. Snow, autumnal leaves, fog, rain and sunshine all play important roles in displaying ultimately the idea that everything is against these lovers and their passions.
Empire of the Passions is Nagisa Oshima’s own answer to his preevious film The Realm Of the Senses. Where that film was criticised for its very open revelations on sexuality, Oshima made Empire of the Passions in the hope of creating a more subtle style of love affair. Of course, he received a great deal of criticism for this film not being openly sensual enough.
For me, this is a superior film to In the Realm of the Senses. I found the use of weather and the thrust of the lovers into the outside (whereas in The Realm of the Senses the couple spent so much time in a small room) provoked a vulnerability that was palpable in the lovers. Fear laces this film. Not just the fear of a horror story (for that is what this is) but the fear of having our darkest secrets exposed. And of course the ultimate fear that what will be our undoing is our own exposure through our subconscious drives.
In the other Oshima film that I watched recently, Marry Christmas Mr Lawrence (made after this film) Oshima gets deep into the psyches of his four protagonists. In Empire of the Passions, however, he keeps a ruthless distance, forcing us to watch these lovers, their crime and the response of the villages from the position of observer. This, coupled with the spinning wheels theme – the rickshaw wheels that spin, the opening of the well into which the husband’s body is dumped – suggests less the continuous flow of life than a deterministic ring closing in on the main characters as new local authorities investigate their crime.
Visually, besides the elements and their impact on the lovers, skin tones are an important accent on the film. From the flushed faces of the lovers, to the pointed brown nipples of Seki to the painted white face of horror on her husbands ghost, the flesh is prominent and present. In a telling scene Toyoji shaves the pubic hair of Seki as she lays back and cries about the depth of their love and the hopelessness of their situation considering they will almost definitely get caught. Her covering is removed by her lover, she is left vulnerable and exposed, her lust available for her husband to see.
I enjoyed this film. I liked it better than In The Realm of the Senses. I like that the passion displayed is not the way we Westerners like to think of the Japanese (messy and driven by their desire) and I like the visceral impact of skin, weather and circles. Please grab a copy as soon as you can. You won’t be sorry.