Empire Of Passion: Deconstructed

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

Returning to his hometown from a brief stint in the army, young Toyoji begins courting the much older, and married, Seki. Their romance is fairly innocent at first,  with  Toyoji doing nice things for her, like bringing over flowers and sweets. However, things quickly take a turn for the dark when Toyoji forces himself on Seki while she is caring for her infant son. Then, after extorting several, increasingly degrading sexual acts from her, Toyoji, who is extremely jealous, says that they must kill Seki’s husband. “I can’t stand the thought of you being with any other man,” he says. Seki reluctantly agrees, and, one night, after getting her husband good and drunk, she and Toyoji strangle him to death. They then dump his body down a well, and tell everyone in their village that her husband went off to Tokyo. But when the man’s ghost begins haunting the streets of their community, rumors begin circulating, and the authorities are brought in to investigate.

Empire Of Passion is a film I reviewed a while back. When I first saw it, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I admired the film’s look, with the use of light and smoke really creating a tense, otherworldly atmosphere. But just about everything else, from the over-the-top acting, to the idiotic character choices, to the repetitive scenes and questionable sexual politics, didn’t work for me. For that reason, I gave the movie a bad review, and put it out of my mind. Or I tried to, anyway. For even now, after all this time, I’ve been unable to forget it. Something about this picture has stuck with me. It’s clung to my consciousness like a stain to a shirt. For this reason, and the fact that I’ve now seen some more of the director, Nagisa Oshima’s, other works, I have decided to do an in-depth analysis of the film. Hopefully, in so doing, I will be able to make a better, more informed decision about whether or not the picture is any good. But to do that, I must answer a few questions; What kind of movie is this? What is its underlying message? And, most importantly, can it be read as pro or anti-feminist?

Starting with the obvious, what kind of film is this? What I mean when I say that is, what genre does this film fall into? Is it a horror film? Is it a drama? Is it an erotic romance? For as long as there has been fiction, writers, publishers and audiences have put different stories into different categories. Partly as a marketing tool, and partly as a way to help people understand the story and its themes better. Determining Empire Of Passion’s genre can, and will, clarify its messages and ideas. So, what genre is it? Well, on the surface, it would appear to be a horror movie. There’s a ghost. There’s eerie lighting. There’s creepy-sounding music. All this would seem to suggest that Empire of Passion is a horror movie. But that ignores one of, nay, the key, truths about horror films; that they are designed to frighten and panic. Empire Of Passion clearly is not made for that purpose. Nothing remotely scary, or supernatural, happens for the first hour or so. And when the ghost does show up, he doesn’t do anything remotely frightening. He sits by the fire, looking sad. He offers to give his wife a ride home. Never once does he try to attack her, or get her to confess her crime. He’s more annoying than terrifying. And just because a story has something supernatural in it doesn’t mean that it’s automatically horror. Hamlet, Macbeth, and 2017’s A Ghost Story, which I reviewed here recently, all have specters, but no one would even think of calling them horror. So, when you really think about it, Empire of Passion doesn’t actually qualify as a scary movie. But if it’s not horror, then what is it? Well, the genre that it actually shares the most similarities with is tragedy. Like a tragedy, the film tracks the downfall of two people, and, also like a tragedy, their destruction is brought on by a hamartia, or fatal flaw. For Macbeth, the flaw is greed. For Hamlet, it is indecisiveness. For Seki and Toyoji, it is their inability to leave one another. Both are given numerous chances to flee, and yet, every time, they choose to stay. Their lust for one another is simply too great. Their lives are destroyed by sexual desire. For this reason, it might be best to classify Empire of Passion as an Erotic Tragedy, with elements of Horror thrown in.

So, now that we know the film’s genre, we must ask ourselves two questions; one, what does this tell us about the film’s message? And two, what is the film’s message? All works of art, even those without overtly political agendas, have messages. That’s because just about every work made by man attempts to teach us things. Even if the lessons are as basic as “don’t lie,” or “be grateful for what you have,” they are still, in a way, political. They are upholding a particular world view, and politics, at its core, is the discourse between differing world views. The genre of tragedy is especially effective at conveying messages, since the characters’ flaws–their greed, their dishonesty, their bigotry, etc–oftentimes articulate the author’s political opinions. Don’t kill kings. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Otherwise bad stuff will happen. That’s usually how it works. Occasionally, though, it’s not the characters flaws that illustrate the storyteller’s views. It’s what happens to them. In some tragedies, like The Crucible, the protagonists are, ultimately, moral people, and their flaw is the fact that they remain moral in an immoral world. Knowing the director, Nagisa Oshima, it’s safe to assume he meant for Empire Of Passion to be the latter kind of tragedy. A staunch leftist, and former student radical, Oshima always used his work to critique Japanese culture. From the government’s discrimination against the Korean minority (Death By Hanging), to its wartime atrocities (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), to its strict censorship of sex and sexuality (In The Realm Of The Senses), Oshima always had something to say about Japan in his work. His stories tended to revolve around characters who were disillusioned with their surroundings, and so rebelled against them, only to be brought down, and to have the status quo restored. That’s the case in Empire Of Passion, where he seems to be suggesting that life is cyclical, and that, in the end, nothing we do really matters, since, in just a few short years, everything we did will be forgotten. Seki and Toyoji “rebel” against their small, isolated community by having an affair, and killing the former’s husband. But, by the end of the film, they are caught, and hanged, and life moves on. The movie doesn’t even end with their execution, which would have given their deaths some degree of weight and pathos. Instead, the story concludes with a shot of Toyoji’s mentally-challenged brother running through the town, as he was shown doing earlier in the film, and a voice over saying, in a rather blasé tone, that Seki and Toyoji were hanged, and that the community quickly forgot about them. The theme of life being cyclical is reinforced by a recurring visual motif; a spinning wheel. The film opens with a shot of a spinning wheel, and there are several points in the movie where we see other circular objects rotating. One of the few genuinely frightening moments in this picture occurs when Seki is sitting at home, and, out of nowhere, the wheels of her dead husband’s rickshaw start spinning. Even the story itself is cyclical, since we see the four seasons pass several times, and many of the same scenes–Seki and Toyoji having sex, Seki telling Toyoji to run–occur over and over again. All this reinforces the idea that the wheel of life keeps on spinning, regardless of what we do and who we are, which is the film’s central thesis.

So it’s a tragedy, whose main message is that life is cyclical. But is it pro or anti Feminist? That is the last, and trickiest, question, and is the most important in determining whether or not this film is worth remembering.

Determining whether or not Empire Of Passion is Feminist is a very difficult task, mostly because there is evidence to support either side of the equation. On the one hand, the film could be read as an argument against the liberation of women, and in favor of traditional, patriarchal values. In the movie, a lustful, deceitful woman cheats on her husband, kills him, and even neglects to take care of her infant child, all because she wants to have sex with a younger man. In this interpretation, Seki is a warning for other women to not leave the house, and to obey their husbands and fathers. Otherwise, bad stuff will happen to them, as it does to Seki. Not only does she wind up getting executed for her husband’s murder, she is also blinded, and repeatedly beaten and harassed by the police. Evidence for the anti-Feminist reading is most prevalent in the scene where Toyoji forces himself on Seki. It begins with her napping while cradling her infant son. Toyoji enters, gropes her while she’s unconscious, and then, when she wakes up, covers her mouth and drags her into the bedroom. We hear her say “no,” “don’t,” and “stop,” several times, and yet, when we cut to the inside of the bedroom, we see her on her back, enjoying the sensation of Toyoji going down on her. And we know that she enjoys it, because she hears the baby crying in the other room, and covers her ears to drown it out. This one scene encapsulates every backward, reactionary view that men have about women; that they enjoy being raped; that if they are given too much freedom, they’ll neglect their true responsibilities, like motherhood, etc. And yet, as disgustingly misogynistic as Empire Of Passion can be, there’s also more than enough evidence to read it as a feminist tragedy about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, finding the man of her dreams, and ultimately being punished by society for being happy. As mentioned earlier, Empire’s director, Nagisa Oshima, was a well-known leftist, renowned for despising both patriarchy and toxic masculinity. The sexual desires of women was something he was deeply interested in, actually going so far as to make a documentary on the subject for Japanese television. Knowing this, certain scenes that would otherwise feel like throwaways–Seki’s husband talking to their grown up daughter, Shin, some women from the village gossiping about Seki–take on greater significance. The former scene, especially, lends itself well to a feminist reading of the film. In it, Seki’s husband tells Shin that she shouldn’t bother with school, or with dreams. “Your mother had dreams once,” he says, “Eventually, she learned to leave them behind. And she’s much better now.” This brief exchange casts a whole new light on Seki and Toyoji’s relationship. Now, instead of being an innocent victim, her husband comes off as a smug patriarch, forcing his wife to adhere to his beliefs about what she should be. His death is infinitely less tragic, and Seki and Toyoji’s relationship is considerably less monstrous. And yet, even with this scene, even with the knowledge that the director was a liberal who despised patriarchal societies, I don’t think I can say this film is feminist in its portrayal of sex and relationships. The biggest reason is that rape scene I mentioned. If Oshima wanted to tell a story about a repressed woman’s sexual awakening, why did he have to show her getting assaulted? That fundamentally undercuts any feminist reading the story could have had, since rape is one-sided. It does not consider the needs of the victim, in this case, Seki. If the point of the story is to show Seki giving in to her urges, and finally being able to explore her sexuality, why not have her be the one to initiate things? As it is, Seki is an extremely passive player in this story. She gets assaulted by Toyoji. She gets blackmailed into killing her husband. Nowhere in the film do we see her exhibiting any kind of agency. On top of that, the picture never really shows her enjoying herself. Every time she and Toyoji have sex, it’s because Toyoji wants it, no matter how dangerous, or inconvenient, it might be for Seki. And there are several scenes where he asks her to do things in bed, like shave off her pubic hair, that she doesn’t want to. And we know she doesn’t want to because we see her crying and looking miserable. So when you really look at the film, at the shots and lines of dialogue, any potential Feminist angle it might have crumbles into dust. And that’s not even getting into the director’s views on sex. See, even though Oshima was a leftist, he had some startlingly questionable views on consent. Some of his most famous films–Cruel Story Of Youth, In The Realm Of The Senses, this–feature female characters falling in love with the men who rape them. And one of his most acclaimed movies, Death By Hanging, is based on a real life case wherein a Korean man, Ri Chin’U, admitted to raping and murdering two little girls. Oshima held Ri Chin’U in high regard, despite his crimes, describing him as the most “intelligent and sensitive youth produced by post-war Japan.” Not only that, he believed that Ri’s writings, wherein he detailed exactly how and why he raped and killed these girls, should be taught in schools. Yes, schools. This, in my opinion, seriously weakens his credibility when it comes to telling stories about women’s sex lives. Because, clearly, he didn’t understand some very basic things. So, in the end, I don’t believe Empire of Passion is a Feminist Feature. Though it could have been, in someone else’s hands.

Having gone back and re-evaluated Empire Of Passion, I find myself in much the same position as before. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. I can appreciate some of its messages, and craftsmanship, more. But, at the same time, it’s narrative flaws, and highly unpleasant treatment of female characters, have become all the more striking to me. For this reason, I don’t believe I can recommend this to you, even as an example of strong visual craftsmanship. Perhaps others will disagree. As for me, though, I’m quite happy to put this out of my mind, and never think of it again.

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