What kind of ghost story can you expect by a director like Nagisa Oshima? He’s entirely unconventional, a maverick who tries never to repeat himself. He’s worked outside the Japanese studio system for most of his cinematic career, and has had to seek financing from other countries since the 1970’s. It was during that time period that French producer Anatole Dauman approached Oshima to produce three films with him, on condition that they were ‘adult’ in content. Obviously "In the Realm of the Senses" met all of Dauman’s expectations, although for most it did not. But with "Empire of Passion", Oshima’s only take on the "Kaidan", Dauman was not pleased at all, and they never made that third film. So how would someone like Oshima follow up something as controversial as "In the Realm of the Senses"?
"Empire of Passion" tells the tale of Seki and Toyoji. Seki is a married woman with two children. Her husband, Gisaburo, is an alcoholic rickshaw driver, who’s always friendly and cheerful. Were it not for the fact that they were so poor, bound to live at natures’ whim in their small village, and were it not for the fact that there is no real passion in their relationship, Seki could almost be happy. And while on the surface she appears so, deep down she isn’t. Gisaburo even admits so much to their eldest daughter Shin, but due to his lot in life, he’s unable to give her the happiness she wants and deserves. Enter Toyoji, a discharged soldier who lives on pure emotion. He immediately takes a liking to Seki, who happens to be twenty years his elder, and one day forces himself on her. While at first she resists, she soon succumbs to his desires, and her own, and the two develop a secret love affair, full of real, physical passion, like neither of them have ever felt. They soon devise a plan to kill Gisaburo, and when they finally do, all seems fine, until three years later, when his ghost starts to haunt Seki and her home.
Up front "Empire of Passion" sounds like a typical Kaidan. Based on a true event, it quickly becomes apparent that not only is this not a typical Kaidan, it’s also a very different film from "In the Realm of the Senses". While they are companion pieces, and both deal with sex, lust and their inherent violent nature, they do it in completely different ways. "In the Realm of the Senses" is graphic, "Empire of Passion" is not. Not only are the sexual encounters quite subdued, so is the ghost story aspect of the film. The ghost of Gisaburo is not your typical Kaidan ghost. He doesn’t come back to seek vengeance, but more just to fulfill the role he filled when he was still alive. Which is not to say that this film lacks sexual chemistry or isn’t an effective ghost story, far from it. Oshima is still able to capture the passion that both Seki and Toyoji seek without being explicit, which was probably his point. He hated to repeat himself, and loved breaking convention. Here he’s breaking the conventions he established prior, and he does it beautiful. And the film is still incredibly haunting, despite the fact that Gisaburo is more at times a manifestation of Seki’s guilt, and less an otherworldly force, back from the dead, angry and vengeful. Also of note to the horror genre, this film uses a deep well as both the dumping site for Gisaburo’s body, but also references the cyclical nature of its shape as a narrative device, something that is obviously a precursor to the J-horror boom of the 1990’s.