Thursday, July 16, 2009

Scream of Passion

Following the release of In the Realm of the Senses, I get the feeling that Nagisa Oshima had so little left that he could have done and felt good about, but he and Anatole Dauman at Argos films had agreed that they'd make three films and he'd only delivered one. He'd made the definitive statement about pornography after a decade of incisive commentary on Japanese society, where else did he have to go? Well, he hadn't made a horror film yet. I use that word not unequivocally, as anyone involved with the film, Oshima included, will tell you that they don't think of it as a horror film. I'm a horror fan, I was raised on horror and I'd like to state that it is a horror film, it's just smarter and more beautiful than most horror films (thanks to its recent Criterion release, that beauty is all the more clear). It has something to say and it's almost bloodless, but its a horror film. Not only is it a horror film, it's a damn good one and it has some striking imagery that even after 30 years has not been bested or copied. Empire of Passion confirms my suspicion that dramatic/experimental filmmakers often make the best genre films.

Empire of Passion
by Nagisa Oshima
Seki and Gisaburo are an aging couple in Meiji era Japan. Gisaburo drives a rickshaw and Seki is a servant at a sake house and is incredibly popular among the few men in town. Seki is apparently almost 50 years old but looks no older than 30. One of her more persistent suitors is a young man 25 years her junior called Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji from In the Realm of the Senses, once again playing the doomed lover). Toyoji catches Seki unawares one night when they've both been drinking and seduces her (actually its more of a browbeating than a seduction). Seki feels flattered and enjoys herself enough to allow a repeat performance. Soon Toyoji feels jealous of the similarly jealous Gisaburo and makes some dastardly plans. He shaves Seki's pubic hair and convinces her that her husband will become wise to their affair and that the only way out is to strangle her long-suffering husband to death and hide his body.

Three years after their crime, a detective called Hotta shows up asking questions at the same time that Seki's daughter Shin gets old enough to wonder where her dad's been this whole time. Toyoji doesn't want anyone thinking he's a murderer, so he insists on keeping his and Seki's love a secret even longer. Seki wants to either confess or just live together in sin, either way the pressure would appear to be getting to her. How else would you explain the fact that her dead husband continues to appear to her when she's alone? The hauntings soon spread to Toyoji as well and between their rising guilt and Hotta's investigation, things don't look great for our lovers. When they start committing more murders to cover up for killing Gisaburo they know the end is near. They decide that the only solution lies in doing something with Gisaburo's body, which they left at the bottom of a well, but there's more down there than they think.

I watched Empire of Passion with two friends who, while used to the weird crap I always show them, are by no means hounds about this stuff. The one thing that we all seemed to agree on however was how gorgeous this movie was. Between Yoshio Miyajima's cinematography, Jusho Toda's production design and Oshima's framing, Empire of Passion is hands down one of the most artfully made fright films of all time. I think that approaching a story like this from his background, Oshima was much more concerned about the atmosphere than the actual hauntings that are ostensibly the point of a film like this. To be precise, what he was most taken with was the idea of love in such a time as late 19th century Japan. He had found the story of the affair in a book about the era by Nakamura Itoko. The book was actually the biography of an author who lived in that period and Itoko thought that such an emotional tangent (unheard of in that time period) would appeal to Oshima whose In the Realm of the Senses was still turning heads all over the world. The director was even more enchanted than Itoko could have imagined.
People often compare Passion to Senses, and it makes sense. Both are about lovers who can't really function in the outside world, but what drives them is completely different. Their love is sparked first by the notion of being caught by the husband and then they drift apart over the three years that Shin is away at school. It's only with the arrival of the detective and the prospect of being hanged do their feelings flare up again. He was more making a film about lust than anything else. By stacking the odds against our poor heroes, he was drawing them back to one another, just in an unbelievably cruel way. Weirder still is that each element on its own makes for an almost comically ineffective roadblock. Hotta, the police officer gives Donald Pleasance in Raw Meat stiff competition for strangest policemen in a 1970s horror film. He bounces around and shouts most of his questions and gets uncomfortably close to everyone; he's more bizarre than menacing. The character of the Young Master, who I gather is something like the landlord of the village, is also sort of funny. He thinks he knows that Toyoji is guilty because he's seen him dropping leaves into a well every fall day for three years, but when he might do something about it, he lamely threatens Toyoji and is bested in a fight, all in about 15 seconds. And then there's the ghost himself.

Oshima has gone on record as saying that the ghost in his movie is the "ghost of a farmer, not a samurai", which on top of mirroring peer and director Shohei Imamura's statement that he was a "country farmer" while Oshima was "a samurai," meant adjusting his haunting behavior dramatically. He shows up but just goes about his daily routine; He's caught between living and dying, and like Bruce Willis in The 6th Sense just wants to go on with his life. The movie's best scare comes in his second or third appearance. He finds Seki as she's walking home and offers her a ride on his rickshaw. When she refuses he just follows her home until she agrees to get in. She soon sees that he's not taking her home and so starts screaming to be let down. Not the most terrifying thing on paper but Oshima gives it a wonderfully ethereality. He tries to make sure that we are never certain whether or not the ghost is in the dreams or sub-conscious of Seki and Toyoji. Unlike most ghost stories, the ghost in Empire of Passion might just be there to remind the lovers of their guilt. And perversely, it is guilt that acts as the strongest pull towards each other. With that in mind I can't say I know precisely what the moral is supposed to be, but as horror devices go that's pretty ingenious. Incidentally, the sex in this film isn't the sex in In the Realm of the Senses by any stretch. It is used as a sort of weapon, which makes it just about as unpleasant and strange, but we don't see nearly what we do in Senses. Anatole Dauman pulled the plug on his and Oshima's next collaboration; he had wanted more hard core sex to sell and Oshima had done all he could with that.

But again I don't think it would work without its look. Gisaburo in his ghastly appearance is one of the most subtly creepy ghosts I've ever seen. I think it's that Miyajima's camera lets us feast on every wrinkle in his face for the few moments we get to glimpse it. It is really scary looking; the red eyes, the pale complexion, its insistence on doing nothing out of the ordinary. But if Oshima and Co. hadn't designed such a gorgeous backdrop for the actions to transpire over, the whole film would be incomplete. A cursory glance at the set design tells me that Oshima and Toda have seen Onibaba and Snake Woman's Curse, and Oshima being the cinephile he's reputed to be, I don't think its impossible to consider. They do, however, do a good enough job owning their work for me not to mind in the slightest. I can't state enough times that the look of Empire of Passion is stunning. I do like, too, that Oshima stuck to the Japanese horror tradition of placing most of the scares in jump-cut reveals, like on the rickshaw ride. It makes it feel more timeless and instills a feeling of paranoia. I would have liked more horrific elements but as a work of atmospherics, sexuality and tension, it's fantastic.
Before I finish, I'd like to just comment on the best device in the film: the well. Oshima frames a great deal of action from the bottom of the well where Gisaburo's body lays, changing with the season and the time of day. It's such a simple device but its so arresting and so stylized that I can't believe no one had thought of it before. Nagisa Oshima was a genius, a 'samurai' with a camera and Empire of Passion a brilliant film. 

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