Empire of the Passions
R4 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (12th February 2017).
The Film

“Empire of the Passions” 「愛の亡霊」 (1978)

Taking place in 1895 in a rural village in Japan, Gisaburo (played by Takahiro Tamura) and his wife Seki (played by Kazuko Yoshiyuki) live a seemingly normal life with their two children. Gisaburo is a cart puller bringing goods from town to town while Seki works at the local restaurant as a waitress. Things start getting complicated when the youthful and rambunctious Toyoji (played by Tatsuya Fuji) comes back to town. Gisaburo even jokes around that Toyoji might have an eye on his wife, as she looks much younger than her age and is a beauty. While Gisaburo goes out of town for work, Toyoji slowly makes his move on Seki and while she is hesitant at first, she slowly caves into the man 23 years her junior.

As Toyoji cannot bear to have her continue the relationship with Gisaburo, they plan a way to get rid of him - to strangle him while unconscious from alcohol and dump his body into the deep well. To cover up the murder and disappearance of the corpse, the villagers are told that Gisaburo had gone off to Tokyo to look for better work. As time passes and the guilt starts riding on their consciences, government officials start investigating the disappearance, and unsuspectingly the ghost of Gisaburo starts to haunt the town…

In 1976 director Nagisa Oshima became one of the most internationally well known filmmakers from Japan with his sensational and controversial work “In the Realm of the Senses” which pushed sexual content, violent content, and moral taboos seen on screen. It proved critically and financially successful worldwide but it also caused a great deal of trouble in many countries including a lawsuit for indecency in his home country of Japan. Not for the film, as the film was heavily cut, but a book that was published with the contents of the film including still photographs of the production. While film fans and critics were eager to see what Oshima would do next for a film, it was increasingly difficult for him to get financing through production companies in Japan. Anatole Dauman, the French producer who helped get “In the Realm of the Senses” produced helped with the production of a follow-up film, “Empire of Passion” which would be a spiritual successor (literally) to “In the Realm of the Senses” but an entirely different work of its own.

Adapted from the story “The Incident of Gisaburo the Cart Puller” written by Itoko Nakamura, this was a fictional story of a murder and the consequences. In the film version the sexual angle was played highly with a number of lovemaking scenes and nudity, but the amount shown was not the same style as “In the Realm of the Senses” which had hardcore unsimulated scenes. In “Empire of Passion” the sex scenes were not as shocking as it as simulated and genital nudity was never shown. Rather the main focus of the film was about the tension that was built between the characters of Toyoji and Seki both at the start of their relationship and their eventual guilt that overpowers them, it is a moral tale rather than what “In the Realm of the Senses” was. The guilt is presented in supernatural form with the ghost of Gisaburo frequently haunting Seki and making her go insane, and it plays off the countless supernatural ghost tales that have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries. Toyoji was played by Tatsuya Fuji who previously worked with Oshima on “In the Realm of the Senses”, again playing the lead role. While the character is animalistic in the way that Toshiro Mifune character was in “Rashomon”, he does seemingly have a side of sensitivity and love in which he genuinely cares about the Seki character. The scene with the house burning and Toyoji tries to bust the door down by ramming into it several times - the doors were supposed to break down rather easily but it was accidentally built stronger than it should have been. Fuji rammed into the door which didn’t break, so he kept slamming into it again and again until he passed out. He severed all his tendons in his right arm which then he was sent to the hospital for recovery. During some scenes you can see that he is not able to move his right arm as he had to have a hidden cast on. Even the ending scenes, the guards were careful not to inflict damage on his right arm as it was still healing. That’s some method acting. Kazuko Yoshiyuki who was a veteran actress played Seki and for her it was the first time to work with Oshima on a film. She said she was at first quite hesitant to work with the director of “In the Realm of the Senses” but she felt comfort as she had previously worked with Fuji on other productions and was enamored with the script.

For a story involving supernatural activity, there were not a lot of special effects used. There were the occasional superimpositions but most of the effects were practical - with the dry ice and smoke machines, the real fire to burn down the house, and the makeup on the Gisaburo ghost character. There was one effect in which Seki smashes a bottle over the ghost of Gisaburo making the faceless ghost bleed and it was one that tried to do something shocking and the finished shot makes it look a little amateurish taking the viewer out of the film for a moment. This was not the only weak point in the film. The character of the inspector Hotta (played by Takuzo Kawatani) does not seem like much of a threatening character but more of a slight comedic relief. The inspector should have been a much more serious character to show an impending doom forthcoming but the scene of him asking questions to the nearly deaf old man sticks out as being the wrong tone. Oshima has said that the does not see law enforcement as serious people in his movie and he saw the police as “comical” both in cinema and in real life, so this was a directorial choice. Toyoji’s mentally challenged brother Denzo (played uncredited by film critic Osugi) was another part that didn’t seem to fit well as his character did not have much purpose nor did his disability. It might seem strange to mention the few negatives when the film has so many positives.

The cinematography is magnificent, lensed by Yoshio Miyajima and shot on location in rural Japan rather than on soundstages for the most part, but that also meant enduring bad weather of the differing seasons and the bugs and other issues by nature. There are some unforgettable shots including the scenes from within the well and the magnificent shot of the final embrace. Colors are strikingly used from the blood reds, changing leaves of the seasons, and the greens of the nature. The score by Toru Takemitsu is a hauntingly beautiful one that is worthy of repeated listens. For the story it may lie in convention, but the execution is wonderful. It’s a masterful work though not Oshima’s best is still an excellent film, and one worthy of being a follow-up to “In the Realm of the Senses”.

The film debuted at Cannes in May of 1978 followed by theatrical releases in France and Japan a few months later. Some critics argued that it stayed too much on the conventional side and did not have the shock value of his previous film. Others saw the similarities between the film and the prior one which paralleled many actions while taking a very different and unsuspecting direction. As it did not have the controversial nature or bannings in countries, “Empire of Passion” did receive awards recognition and critical praise in many circles, with a “Best Director” award at Cannes and 8 Japanese Academy Award nominations though with only a single win with the “Best Music” award for composer Toru Takemitsu. As the film is always compared to “In the Realm of the Senses” it has always had difficulty standing on its own. It is often lumped together in the same conversation as it shares its theme of violence and sex, the same lead actor, same producer, and same director. Oshima’s other work such as “Violence at Noon”, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, or “Cruel Story of Youth” are always discussed on their own and sometimes “In the Realm of the Senses” is talked about without mentioning “Empire of Passion”, and that is a shame. It is usually treated like “the other child” but it certainly shouldn’t be. “Empire of Passion” has legs of its own and stands proud as a supernatural erotic ghost story. Flawed, but still beautiful and amazing.

Note this is a region 2/4/7 PAL format DVD

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the anamorphic 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio in the PAL format. Unlike the non-anamorphic and censored “In the Realm of the Senses” DVD release, it comes as a relief that this one comes with a newer and better master, though it is not perfect. Colors look a little bit on the “blue” side which skin tones looking cold and environments lacking bright colors. In contrast the US Criterion DVD which was a transfer from the original negative shows bright and beautiful colors with natural looking skin tones and an extremely sharp image. The Australian DVD is closer to the UK Studio Canal Blu-ray which leans toward more of a blueish hue. Colors aside, the master is quite clean with very few instances of damage such as dust and debris to be seen. There is a little bit of telecine wobble noticeable in static shots and also the opening credits which is minor. Overall the transfer is a mixed bag - it could have been better but it is not a distracting experience at all.

The film’s runtime is 100:39 (with 4% PAL speedup) which is the uncut theatrical version. The master uses the original French language credits with the French title “L'Empire de la passion”.

Audio

Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 mono
The original mono track actually sounds quite good here. Dialogue sounds clear along with sound effects and music. Dialogue seems to be post synchronized but there are no issues of unsynchronized mouths or damage to the audio track. It is very clean with good fidelity.

There are optional English subtitles for the main feature in a white font. The subtitles are well timed and easy to read but there was one issue of mistranslation in the subtitle track:

When the inspector asks Seki for Gisaburo’s full name she says in the subtitles “Gisaburo Desa”. Yes if you hear her speak she does clearly say “Gisaburo Desa”, but she is NOT saying his family name. She is stating that they do not have a family name and his name is just “Gisaburo”. When she says “Desa” this is a local dialect form of the Japanese word “Desu” which is a general ending to a sentence to state formality. It wasn’t until the Meiji restoration period in the late 1800s that all citizens of Japan were able to have a family name. Only citizens of higher class were born with surnames. Although the film takes place in 1895 there were still many people especially in the countryside that had not yet registered a family name. So in the Australian subtitle track she is saying that the family’s surname is “Desa”, and it is clearly a mistake.

Extras

"Cinema and Censorship: The Films of Nagisa Oshima" a discussion with Solrun Hoaas (39:35)
Norwegian born Hoaas studied in Kyoto during the 1960s and later became a lecturer on film and filmmaker in her later years. In this video essay and interview, she talks about Oshima’s life, his filmography, and about the changing attitudes in Japanese society and in Japanese cinema during the time period. Hoaas died on December 11th 2009 at the age of 66. There are multiple clips of Oshima’s films in this video essay but many of the films are squeezed, stretched, or cropped to the wrong aspect ratio. This extra is also featured on the Umbrella DVD of “In the Realm of the Senses”.
in 576i PAL, in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, in English and Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 with burned-in English subtitles for the Japanese portions

Bonus Trailers
- "La Bęte" (3:31)
- "A Short Film About Killing" (2:36)
- "A Short Film About Love" (2:31)
- "Queen Margot" (2:11)

The trailers for “La Bęte” (1975), “A Short Film About Killing” and “A Short Film About Love” (both 1988), and “Queen Margot” (1994) are offered. "La Bęte" is a pretty weak looking trailer in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 and is optically censored with a black box appearing throughout whenever genitals appear. Both “A Short Film…” films are in anamorphic 1.66:1 with burned-in subtitles and look very good. “Queen Margot” is in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 and also has burned-in English subtitles, from an older print.

As the extras are repeated from the “In the Realm of the Senses” DVD (even the trailers), there are no exclusive contents to be found on this disc. No interviews, commentary, or even the film’s trailer.

Packaging

It should be noted that the international English title of the film is “Empire of Passion” while the Australian DVD titles it “Empire of the Passions” on the case. Probably to market it better with “In the Realm of the Senses” with “of the” and the plural form overlapping. This was the case in many territories, as in France both films has “L'Empire…” at the start of the title, in Japan both movies have 「愛の…」at the start of the title, and even when Fox Lorber in America released their godawful versions of the film on DVD, they retitled “Empire of Passion” to “In the Realm of Passion” for marketing reasons. Strangely with the Australian DVD, the case states “Empire of the Passions” but during the opening title sequence it is clearly titled “Empire of Passion”.

Also a note about the cover, on the spine there is a picture of Sada and Kichizo. Wrong movie! It is the identical picture used on the spine of “In the Realm of the Senses” DVD. It just seems that “Empire of Passion” just can’t get a break…

Overall

“Empire of Passion” will forever be known as the Nagisa Oshima film after “In the Realm of the Senses” and it is a shame since it is a completely different film with a different experience. It has its flaws but is still an amazing film on its own and one of Oshima’s standout works. The Umbrella Entertainment DVD gives fair video and great audio, but the extras being identical to the “In the Realm of the Senses” DVD is a bit of a disappointment.

The Film: B+ Video: B Audio: A Extras: C- Overall: B

 


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