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Empire of Passion: Interview with Nagisa Oshima

This interview, conducted by Michael Henry, first appeared in the May 1978 issue of Positif.

What were the circumstances that brought you to the project Empire of Passion?

This film is very tightly linked to Senses. Isn’t it the fate of a creator to respond, through a new work, to the sympathy previously bestowed on him by critics, and maybe even to try to surpass the previous work? In truth, at the end of 1976, the year I dedicated myself entirely to In the Realm of the Senses, an unknown person, Itoko Nakamura, sent me her book. I get a lot of publications this way—new books that someone asks me to review and unbound manuscripts from unknown authors. I often spend entire days leafing through them. But when I’m working on a specific project, I will open the envelope out of compulsion but put off reading what’s inside until later. As I was starting to write the script for my next film, I was just about to put Nakamura’s book aside when its title suddenly captured my attention—Takashi Nagatsuka: Three Generations to Fertilize the Soil. For many months, I had kept Nagatsuka’s novel, The Soil, which I consider a masterpiece, in a drawer. And this unknown correspondent had enclosed a letter in her package, from which one sentence stood out: “I’m certain that the director of In the Realm of the Senses will understand: even in this dark period of Japanese history, the era of the Meiji, love did exist.” She added: “This book has many misprints, but it would have never seen the light of day without the help of a network of friends generous with their time and advice.” The message touched me deeply, and I immediately took the privilege of being the first to read the manuscript.

How did this manuscript influence or inspire the screenplay that you were working on at the time?

Itoko Nakamura wanted first of all to convey in writing a true image of Takashi Nagatsuka. She said, “If I don’t write it, who will?” Of course she’d never met the great writer, who lived from 1879 to 1915, but her grandfather and father knew him well. They had recounted numerous anecdotes about his life to her in great detail. The stories that connect the three generations of Nagatsuka and Nakamura would make for a real saga. And from that saga, the character of Takashi [Nagatsuka] stands out as a sympathetic man rather than an abstract genius. You can only share in the warm feelings Nakamura expresses toward her character, Nagatsuka.

To enrich her biography, she also evoked the unfortunate murder of Gisaburo, the rickshaw man. This event happened on the night of February 20, 1896, and she’d often heard about it because her father had been the police investigator at the scene of the crime. According to Nakamura, the novelist became very interested in this murder, which took place in a village close to his. He had intended to devote a novel to it, but he died before being able to write it. On her end, after having questioned all the people who might have known about the murder, Nakamura gathered together all her findings in one narrative. I was struck by this story, which does, in fact, prove that “even in this dark period of Japanese history . . . love did exist.”

I was touched even more deeply because the screenplay I was working on took place, give or take a few miles and a few years, in the same world. My main character, instead of being a rickshaw man, was a carriage driver nicknamed the Bear Ogre, who was in all the Japanese newspapers’ crime blotters in 1926. To describe the suffering endured by poor peasants hungry for love, I created a story that was in fact very close to Nakamura’s. So I first tried to include the murder of the rickshaw man in my own screenplay. But as I progressed, the characters from the manuscript kept imposing themselves on me, until they invaded the entire story. In the end, I decided to write to Nakamura, and got her consent to adapt a section of her work.

What kind of a link do you see between Passion and 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?

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.

What relationship should one infer between the supernatural elements of your story and the Japanese tradition of the ghost story?

Traditional Japanese art, whether it’s Kabuki or Kodan, often calls on the presence of ghosts. In truth, most of these stories came to us from China, and they were transformed to serve as edifying stories of revenge. The ghost in my story is quite different. He’s born out of the folklore that Japanese people have managed to keep alive from generation to generation. He is a popular, homegrown ghost, as has rarely appeared on screen or stage. For Seki and Toyoji, just as for the people in the village, he doesn’t belong to the imaginary. They can actually see him and enter fully into this supernatural universe. Nonetheless, I am aware that viewers today will only “see” the ghost by turning to their imaginations. To prepare the audience for it, I had to put myself in their place. So, for example, the way I handled scenes of physical love couldn’t be completely explicit.

You focus part of your story on an old well, a symbolic place of passage from outside to inside. Did it strike you as a symbolic place between the imaginary and reality?

My first screenplay, when I was twenty-two, was titled Seishun no fukachi fuchi yori [From the Bottom of the Abyss of Love]. We’re all there, we’ve all always been there, at the bottom of that old well. When you throw something into that well, you’re probably hoping to get an answer. If the two lovers go down there before the conclusion of the film, it is because I wanted to express the obvious: we’re still at the bottom of the well!

Why did you make Denzo, Toyoji’s younger brother, a simpleton? Was it to end the film on the vision of the “idiot” left to himself in the deserted village once “the sound and fury” had been appeased?

Nowadays, lawmakers think it’s a good idea to commit these “idiots” to psychiatric hospitals. Back in the day, you would run into them on all the roads of Japan. Isn’t it the law of nature that we should live by their side, just as we live amid animals and birds? Regardless of all that, it’s not a story “told by an idiot.” In the tradition of ancient Japanese stories, the narrator is an old woman. A woman whose face is riddled with deep wrinkles. Deep like the wrinkles of the earth, because the earth is at the heart of this story.

The Oedipal nature of the relationship between Seki and Toyoji is very obvious when the young man pushes away the baby she’s breast-feeding. At the time of Senses, you left the responsibility for any psychoanalytic interpretation to the viewer. Have you evolved since? Are you aware that your films penetrate the subconscious more deeply than any other filmmaker’s?

I can only repeat what I’ve always said. Everyone is free to interpret my films as they see them. That said, I am not one of those people who want to interpret the world at any price. I identify with beings like Seki and Toyoji, with people who live and die without ever being able to read their destiny. They’re the ones I feel the closest to. If you call that being close to the “subconscious,” I accept your formulation. I wonder, however, if the work of the artist doesn’t boil down to expressing and projecting outside of himself, as simply as possible, that which resists interpretation.

What does Seki’s blindness represent? Is it another reference to the myth of Oedipus?

What if this were the punishment that Gisaburo wanted Seki to endure? Or an expression of complete and total love? Aren’t we happier if we go through life blind?

When Gisaburo’s body rises to the surface, doesn’t it seem for a moment that Seki regains her sight?

That comment elicits only one question: “Did Seki’s eyes see Gisaburo?” Each viewer is free to decide for himself. But it seems to me that is the case.

Why is Toyoji the last person in the village to “see” the spirit?

How can he not see it? That is an eternal question, “Quo vadis, Domine?” [Where are you going, Lord?] It’s a universal truth, and an everlasting one.

The representative of the law, Officer Hotta, is oddly ridiculous. You even clothe him as a peasant. Is he a character that comes from a comical Japanese tradition?

I’ve always used actors with comedic temperaments for the roles of police officers. Because this is a way that I see power. The funnier the representatives are, the scarier.

The manifestations of the supernatural are very simple. How did you conceive of and direct these effects?

I never had any intention of directing “special effects.” You talk of simplicity, but like I said, my ghost is a very simple ghost, different from the phantoms that traditional decorative arts have often used for moralistic purposes.

Did you give your cinematographer a lot of leeway, or did you dictate a specific style?

Do I give verbal directions to my crew or my actors? When I put together my team, I choose them according to their own style. They read the screenplay and try their best to be in tune with the demands of the story. It’s very important to me that this harmony, this unity, work itself out without my verbalizing anything. What I really want is for everyone to give the best of themselves in complete freedom.

Why is this again a coproduction with France?

I’m not particularly committed to working within the frame­work of an international coproduction. But this has brought me, in the case of Senses, to look at Japan in a new way. Passion, which I again coproduced with Anatole Dauman, was another opportunity to deepen my vision of Japan, and therefore of the world and of men.

You said in 1969, “Sex and crime have one thing in common—they are the most violent urges of human beings.” These two urges are tied together throughout Passion. Will your future work be expanding in that direction?

I found, several years after directing my first films, that I was very attracted to these two topics, sex and crime. Subsequently, my films have addressed them in a very analytic way. Today, I’m at a stage where I simply like to project the naked reality of sex and crime before the spectator’s eyes.

In the beginning, by your own admission, you aimed to “destroy all aesthetics.” Then you found your own aesthetic, which you once summed up with a shot featuring a flame against a black or dark background. Should one see in that image a metaphor for the passions that consume your characters, or one for your own creative endeavors?

Since my very first films, primarily Night and Fog in Japan, certain critics have picked up on a shot that for them was characteristic of my work, one where a flame burns in the dark. For me, this flame represents the lives of my characters. But it’s also an image of our lives. I often cite this maxim: “Just like the fish that dwell in the abyss, we cannot find the light until we ourselves shine.”

 Nagisa Oshima’s responses were interpreted by Hayao Shibata, a coordinator of Oshima’s two French coproductions, In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion. The interview was translated by Alexandre Mabilon.

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