Empire of Passion

A part of this view­ing listCri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #467: Nag­isa Oshima’s Empire of Pas­sion.

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.