At the request of the author, Japanese names in this essay are given in their traditional form: surname first.
When Oshima Nagisa began making films for the French producer Anatole Dauman in the mid-1970s, his career as a filmmaker had been on hold for three years. In a sense, he’d been paying the price for his fierce independence of spirit. A nonaligned artist with clear leftist sympathies, Oshima had always placed himself at some distance from Japan’s consensus-based society; his films and essays had established him as one of Japan’s most prominent dissident intellectuals, equally critical of the country’s successive right-wing governments and of the left’s strategic failures and internecine squabbles. His exasperation with Japan’s politics and postwar culture had first led him to empathize with Japanese-Koreans, the country’s perennial victims of discrimination, and then to focus on the issues of crime and transgressive sex, which he saw as violent expressions of rebellion. If the word weren’t so hopelessly devalued these days, you’d want to call him a maverick. But by the mid-1970s, he’d lost all faith in social and political revolution. Japan seemed to him incapable of change.
Oshima had been a freelance independent director ever since he walked out of the Japanese studio system in 1961. (He had signed with Shochiku in 1954, and served time as an assistant director and screenwriter before directing four remarkable features for the company in 1959–60.) He weathered the early 1960s making documentaries for television (and taking his first trip abroad, to South Korea), seizing two chances that came up to make features for other producers while looking for ways to activate his own independent production company, Sozo-sha (Creation Company). Furiously productive in the years from 1965 to 1972, with modest funding from the newly formed Art Theatre Guild and sometimes from Shochiku, Oshima made twelve Sozo-sha features, including the titles that made his reputation in Japan and Europe: Death by Hanging (1968), Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), Boy (1969), The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970), and The Ceremony (1971). But the last Sozo-sha feature, Dear Summer Sister (1972), flopped at home and abroad, and brought this period to an abrupt end. We can only speculate what was going through Oshima’s head after eight years of making world-class films on tiny budgets; he dissolved Sozo-sha and abandoned all thoughts of making films in Japan.
Whatever Oshima’s personal despair may have been, we shouldn’t forget that Japan’s mainstream film industry seemed at the time to be on the brink of collapse. The major studio Daiei filed for bankruptcy in 1971, Nikkatsu, the country’s oldest production company, reinvented itself as a producer of soft-porn movies in 1972, and Shochiku, Toho, and Toei all went through financial crises, as the mass audience increasingly opted to stay home with their TV sets. Oshima’s immediate response to the situation was to move back into TV himself. He made the daytime series The School for Wives, in which he was an offscreen voice questioning women about their domestic and sexual frustrations; it was the first time in his career that he had seriously explored female points of view. Unprecedented on Japanese TV, the series made Oshima nationally famous and gave him a much wider audience than his films ever had—especially, of course, among women.
Oshima had first met Anatole Dauman in 1972, when he passed through Paris after presenting Dear Summer Sister at the Venice Film Festival. Through his company Argos Films, Dauman had invested in films by many of Europe’s leading art-house directors (Resnais, Marker, Bresson, Godard, Schlöndorff, the list goes on), but in the early 1970s, inspired by the liberalization of censorship in France and the United States, he’d become fixated on the idea of producing hard-core sex films with artistic credibility. Oshima initially shied away from Dauman’s suggestion that he make such a film, but by 1975, when friends told him about the surge of hard-core movies in the market at Cannes, he was persuaded to begin In the Realm of the Senses. (Kurosawa Akira, then similarly “unbankable” in Japan, took Soviet financing to make Dersu Uzala around the same time.) The idea of making a film about Japan’s most famous sex crime, with a decent budget and in conditions of complete freedom, reawakened Oshima’s desire to direct. The prospect of circumventing Japanese censorship (the proposal was that the film stock would be exposed in Japan but processed in France) must have made the decision even easier: he had fought and lost two battles with the censors in the 1960s. Dauman agreed to finance three features by Oshima, but when Empire of Passion, the second, turned out not to be a hard-core sex film, the relationship between producer and director ended acrimoniously.
As anyone familiar with Oshima’s earlier work would expect, his follow-up to In the Realm of the Senses was a radically different film. Oshima was always a director with a horror of repeating himself; he had avoided developing a “personal style,” preferring to find a structure, a visual form, and a tone particular and appropriate to each project in turn. It’s impossible to know whether this was instinctive or planned, but Empire of Passion is in many ways the converse of In the Realm of the Senses. You could chart the differences as a grid of oppositions: urban/rural, shameless/guilt stricken, artifice/nature, exposure/concealment, female voyeurs/one frustrated male voyeur, male narrator/female narrator. (This list, too, could be greatly extended.) But both films center on uneducated, working-class couples who find in adulterous sex a thrilling liberation from everything that stunts their lives, and both films are based on real-life events.
Oshima had started work on a script about a sex murderer, a porter nicknamed the Bear Ogre, whose crimes filled the Japanese tabloids in 1926, when he discovered the story of the rickshaw puller Gisaburo and his wife, Seki, in a biography of the Meiji novelist Nagatsuka Takashi. The book had been sent to him by its author, Nakamura Itoko, with a note saying she was sure the creator of In the Realm of the Senses would find it interesting. Nagatsuka (1879–1915) was born and raised in a village in Ibaraki Prefecture, some fifty miles northeast of Tokyo, and was the first writer in Japan to focus on the real lives of peasant farmers. The only novel he published before dying young of tuberculosis was Tsuchi (1912), translated in 1989, by Ann Waswo, as The Soil; it provided the ultradetailed picture of rural life in Meiji Japan that Oshima would need as background for Empire of Passion, as well as the character of the ridiculous but vicious policeman, an outsider appointed to the village for his supposed objectivity. According to the Nakamura biography, Nagatsuka had been very struck by the murder of Gisaburo, which happened in a village near his own on February 20, 1896, and had intended to use the case as the basis for a novel. Nakamura’s own research into the murder inspired Oshima to abandon his script-in-progress and work on Empire of Passion instead.
What intrigued Oshima so much in the story of Gisaburo and Seki? First and foremost, the fact that it bore witness to an eruption of amour fou in a social setting where such passions were previously unrecorded. Western literature from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century—from Geoffrey Chaucer to Émile Zola—had acknowledged and explored the sex lives of the rural peasant class, but there was no real Japanese equivalent; the bawdy fiction of the Edo period had dealt exclusively with the love lives of the samurai and merchant classes. Oshima responded to the factual account of a torrid affair between a married mother of two and a recently discharged soldier twenty-six years her junior. In Seki he found a peasant ancestor of the women he had interviewed in The School for Wives. Second, he recognized the story as an interesting counterpoint to the one he had told in In the Realm of the Senses. Sada and Kichi had retreated from the increasingly militarized Japan of 1936 into a private world powered by their own sexual fantasies; Seki and her lover, Toyoji, lived out their adulterous passion in a world circumscribed by the laws of nature and the rural traditions of village life. For Oshima, the key element in the story was their defiance: the realization that their affair and their murder of Seki’s husband would be exposed rekindled their passion and made them recklessly indifferent to their punishment.
The film’s Japanese title is Ai no borei, which translates as “Love’s Phantom,” and thus highlights the role the supernatural will play in the story. There’s a long tradition of ghost stories in Japan, which started in lurid folktales (kaidan) and was channeled first into the Kabuki theater and then into movies, Kobayashi’s lushly pictorial Kwaidan being one of the most famous examples. But this current in Japanese culture, heavily inflected by borrowings from China, is all about righting wrongs; the ghosts manifest themselves because they’re seeking vengeance. Oshima has said that he reads the tradition of vengeful spooks as a phenomenon related to the militarist code of Bushido—which he has always vehemently rejected. He sees Gisaburo’s ghost as coming from somewhere very different; he once told me, “The ghost in Empire of Passion is a farmer’s idea of a ghost, not a samurai’s.” Gisaburo, in fact, accepts his sad fate as passively as Kichi succumbed to Sada’s murderous fantasies in In the Realm of the Senses. He doesn’t return to the village as a ghost because he wants revenge but because he’s an unquiet spirit; he appears beside his old rickshaw because he wants to go on serving his wife and the villagers, and beside the hearth in his old home because he still wants the comforts of a pot of warmed shochu liquor. He represents, of course, the guilty conscience of his murderers, not assuaged by emptying dead leaves into the well where his body was dumped, and the collective disquiet of the community that a crime has gone unpunished. The only time he resembles a traditional ghost is when he appears in Seki’s nightmare as a faceless figure gushing blood, and that’s because she has misidentified him as, precisely, a spook demanding vengeance.
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, Oshima 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.
The first image in the film shows the turning wheel of Gisaburo’s rickshaw, and typically for Oshima, this introduces the motif that will govern the film. The wheel is echoed visually in the circle of the well down which Gisaburo’s corpse is thrown, and metaphorically in the cycle of seasons that sets the rhythms of village life and imposes tasks and burdens on the villagers. It is also, of course, a cycle of life and death, and the only character who can escape its immediate pressures is Seki’s teenage daughter, Shin, an emigrant from the village now working in domestic service in the city. Oshima implies strongly that it’s the “laws” of this harsh natural environment that produce guilt in the minds of Seki and Toyoji. The environment equally underpins their transgressive amour fou and their crime of murder.
Where is Oshima himself in all of this? He obviously empathizes with Seki and Toyoji in their clumsy, doomed quest for a private ecstasy, but doesn’t identify with them. Nor is he directly present in the narration, spoken by an old woman whose face, he said at the time, “would be deeply lined, lines as deep as the furrows of the earth.” The figure he is closest to is the village’s young master, who also represents the author in Nagatsuka’s novel; he’s the most educated person in the community, the most clear-sighted, and the most ineffectual. First seen at his wedding ceremony, he’s played by Kawarazaki Kenzo, the same actor who stood in for Oshima in the tortured family saga The Ceremony. The young master stands for modernization and “progressive” ideas, but he’s fated to be silenced by an ex-soldier who can think no further than self-preservation. The character’s death suggests that the pessimism that led Oshima to abandon filmmaking in the early 1970s was undimmed. Empire of Passion ends with an image of Toyoji’s retarded brother, Denzo, the “village idiot,” running wild.
Tony Rayns is a London-based filmmaker and critic with a special interest in East Asian cinema. He was awarded the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Commendation in 2008 for services to Japanese cinema.