director Nagisa Oshima
For all the movies I’ve seen, I was surprised to realize that before watching Empire of Passion, that I’d only ever seen one other Nagisa Oshima film, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). This despite the notoriety and acclaim of films like Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Night and Fog in Japan (1960), and In the Realm of the Senses (1976). As I oft note, nobody has seen everything.
I put this out there because I feel it’s perhaps hard to comment well on Empire of Passion without understanding Oshima’s cinema a bit more in context. His career evolved rather rapidly and Empire was made, apparently, as somewhat a complimentary piece on In the Realm of the Senses, the film considered his best and most important. Having not seen that one is probably a more glaring omission than most.
Empire of Passion is set in 1895, and tells the story of the murder of a rickshaw driver by his wife and her lover, their conspiracy, their guilt, and their haunting by his ghost. I glibly thought that you could call this, “The Rickshaw Driver Always Rings Twice” because there is indeed a passionate noirish quality, though ghosts rarely inhabit noir. And the rickshaw driver is the victim, not a red herring. Anyways, glib one-liners always sound better than they typically are.
I’m now compelled to see In the Realm of the Senses, and other films of Oshima’s oeuvre. Better context doubtlessly leads to better understanding. This film feels packed with meaning.