What goes around comes around; and in this tale of lust, murder, guilt, and insanity, a circle motif appears time and again as a reminder. Many Japanese period pieces feature characters with the agency & power to change their world; or failing that, the intelligence to recognize their limitations in that regard. The peasants in Empire of Passion have neither agency or power, nor the intelligence to cope with the dreams they mistakenly think they can make reality. Placed in 1895, solidly within the Meiji era, the plight of Seki & Toyoji, their inability to cope with the changes they’ve wrought in their own lives echo the changes that Japanese society was dealing with in its efforts to modernize.
Toyoji, returned from modern war to the traditional village, is restless at the pace of life and the complacency of the villagers he’s surrounded by. He lights a fire under innocent Seki, 26 years his senior, and married. They have lots of hot sex, but they’re all fraught, the first one is rape, the last, covered in offal after dredging a well for the corpse of Seki’s husband, Seki begs Toyoji to kill her even as she comes.
The ghost of the dead husband just wants to pull his rickshaw, and gradually haunts more than Seki in his restless quest to discover why he can’t go on as he had before. The arrival of the police investigator, the burning of Seki’s hut, sign after sign reiterates the theme that the traditions of the past cannot endure modernization. The mitigation for this is managed by the narrator opening and closing the tale to comforted us with a feeling that though change is constant and inevitable the life of a community continues in spite of it.