Empire of Passion (1978)

Oshima confidently mixes eroticism with the supernatural in this beautifully-shot murder-cum-ghost tale that is rich in old-world atmosphere.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #2,245

Dir. Nagisa Oshima
1978 | Japan | Drama/Horror/Romance | 105 mins | 1.66:1 | Japanese

Not rated – likely to be R21 for sexual scenes, some nudity and disturbing scenes

Cast: Tatsuya Fuji, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takahiro Tamura
Plot: Set in a Japanese village at the end of the 19th century, the film details the downfall of a married woman and her lover after they murder her husband and dump him in a well.
Awards: Won Best Director & Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Source: Janus Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Lust, Guilt
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Fresh from the notoriety of In the Realm of the Senses (1976), still one of the most infamous examples in world cinema that featured unsimulated sex in its treatment of taboo sexuality, Nagisa Oshima returned with a companion piece in Empire of Passion, this time mixing eroticism with the supernatural. 

The sex here is simulated, and hence tamer by comparison, but Oshima’s approach is not so much about bodies and explicit genitalia i.e. the physical, but spirits. 

A murder-cum-ghost tale, Empire of Passion sees Tatsuya Fuji returning (from Senses) as a man lusting after a married woman in the village.  When they conspire to murder the woman’s husband and throw him down an old well, the deceased’s ghost begins to haunt them. 

“We have done it once, we might as well do it again.”

It’s not a complex premise, but Oshima is a confident myth-teller, delivering a work rich in old-world atmosphere and featuring some of the finest cinematography (by Yoshio Miyajima, known best for his collabs with Masaki Kobayashi such as 1962’s Harakiri and 1964’s Kwaidan) in the director’s oeuvre, particularly the capturing of foggy natural landscapes that threaten to overwhelm the characters. 

Part of the film’s dark and foreboding mood is thanks to Toru Takemitsu’s effectively eerie music that seems to stem from the underworld and could coax ghosts to appear at will (as we would see in several chilling scenes). 

A film about the consequences of adultery and inhibited desires, Empire of Passion should please fans looking for a traditional ghost story built not just upon flesh, but also crime and punishment.

Grade: A-



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