Toyoji hasn’t done much since he got out of the army. He wanders around the little village where he’s currently bumming favors off people, still wearing his old soldier’s jacket, trying to get lucky wherever he can. He’s grown fond of Seki, a woman some twenty-plus years his senior — although she’s married to Gisaburo, the rickshaw driver, and has children of her own. All the same, he’s got an eye for her, and it’s not hard to see why: Seki’s got the body of a woman many years younger. And from what we can see, maybe the libido of one as well.
Her husband doesn’t give her much to be happy about. He’s drunk most of the time, and doesn’t show any interest in having the kids go to school (a relatively new innovation in the Japan of the 1890s). One day Toyoji’s flirtations turn to all-out sexual aggression, and soon he and Seki are sharing a mattress fairly regularly. Then he makes a demand of her: Kill the old bastard and get him out of the way. Do that and we’ll be able to live together like a real married couple. Scared and nervous, she helps him strangle Gisaburo, dumps his body in a disused well some miles away, and makes up some story about her husband heading to the big city to make more money. Finally, Gisaburo’s ghost shows up, hounding Seki into horrified remorse — and then, later on, looming over Toyoji too.
Empire of Passon is most commonly labeled as a ghost story, and as a lesser companion piece to direct Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, filmed a couple of years earlier. It’s both of those things and neither of them. It’s only a ghost story in the sense that there’s a ghost in it — which is more a storytelling device rather than an actual plot element — and while it isn’t as sexually explicit or socially explosive as Senses, that by itself doesn’t make it an inferior movie.
Because the two movies are connected in so many ways, it’s scarcely possible to talk about them out of that light. They both star Tatsuya Fuji — there as a wealthy inn owner who develops an erotic fascination for one of his serving-girls, and here as the randy young layabout Toyoji. The object of his obsession this time around isn’t a former prostitute with a taste for the extreme (and who develops an equally consuming obsession for him) — rather, it’s an older woman, Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), who at first would seem to have all passion spent. She rebuffs Toyoji at first, but soon finds it’s just as difficult to live without him as with him: when you’ve already gone so far into shame, you might as well get in over your head and be done with it.
After dumping the body in a well, they find it hard to share a life together
no thanks to the mounting distrust of their fellow villagers...
Oshima leaves little doubt that Gisaburo’s ghost is their guilt incarnate, especially when his voice first appears in her head as a guilty conscience long before he’s ever killed. What’s interesting is how Oshima lays claim (in a discussion of the film on the Criterion DVD) to the ghost being more in the Japanese folk tradition of such things rather than the more sophisticated literary tradition of an avenging ghost. Gisaburo wants nothing more than to sit and drink with his wife like he did before, to have her ride in his rickshaw like she did before — but when he revisits her to do these things, she finds his presence horrifying. All the things that she and Toyoji were going to do as a couple are now impossible, no thanks to the suspicion of the fellow villagers. Gisaburo is haunting them with lost possibilities in more ways than one.
If Passion comes up second against Senses, it’s only because the story it tells seems more drawn-out than it really needs to be. A good fifteen minutes or so could have been dropped from this film, especially in the second half — there’s a few scenes that don’t so much mirror as repeat each other. One particularly melodramatic sequence, where Seki sets fire to her house and Toyoji tries to break in and save her, goes on at such length that it becomes unintentionally funny. But then there are all the bits that do work, as when the two of them descend into the well where they hid the body, futilely try to dig it back up, and end up making desperate love while slathered in mud.
Oshima was quite often an iconoclast for iconoclasty’s sake. As Donald Richie put it, he worked for a large film company only to turn against it, wrote for a liberal film publication only to turn against the liberals, joined radical factions only to become one of their harshest critics. There was no club he wanted to truly be a member of, a deep aberration in Japan where one is almost inevitably one-of. Empire has some of that, too: he uses the trappings of the ghost story and the backwoods fable to draw us in so that he might tell us another story that is more about social roles and outcasts and stratification. Both Toyoji and Seki long to escape from the poverty and dead-endedness of rural life, but they're shackled by things far greater than mere social conditions, and in the end it’s the sheer ungovernability of his own libido that does them both in.
For years, like Senses itself, Passion was only available in a shabby full-screen edition that made it nearly unwatchable. A shame, too, because like Senses before it, Passion is gorgeous to look at. Oshima shot over the course of a year to make use of all four seasons, and fills the screen edge-to-edge with both natural beauty and rustic small-village settings. It’s an environment, though, not a travelogue; it’s used to enhance the unfolding of the story rather than prop it up.