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REVIEW: Empire of Passion (1978)

November 24, 2011

THE ZONE have my review of Nagisa Oshima’s old-fashioned ghost story Empire of Passion.

There is something decidedly odd about the fact that Empire of Passion netted Oshima an award for best director at Cannes. Indeed, while the film is wonderfully atmospheric and elegantly composed, it is ultimately nothing more than a genre piece in which an adulterous couple are hounded into madness by what they perceive to be an avenging spirit.  In my review, I suggest that the award may well have been given out not for Empire of Passion but for In The Realm of The Senses, the hugely controversial and sexually graphic film that Oshima made prior to this one.

Such trifles aside, Empire of Passion remains a hugely compelling exploration of the mechanics of desire, self-censure and social oppression. Indeed, one of the most striking things about this ghost story is that the ghost never actually cries out for vengeance. In fact, all the ghost wants to do is continue to work as a rickshaw driver. Rather than coming from the ghost, the couple’s slide into madness is caused by their refusal to accept what it is that they have done and why it is that they did it:

Empire Of Passion lends itself beautifully to a Freudian interpretation because it articulates not only the individual’s reticence to accept their hidden desires but also the problem of living as a person who does accept that they have certain needs and desires. Indeed, while Seki and Toyoji seem genuinely horrified by the intensity of the desire that their tryst unlocks, the real meat of the film lies in the characters’ refusal to own up to those desires and incorporate them into their personalities.

A thoroughly excellent film

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