Empire of Passion

Saturday, 4 August 2012

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.