When an established auteur breaks away to make his or her first—and in many cases, only—horror film, watch out. Film history is full of such instances, from old masters (Clouzot’s Diabolique, Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, Kubrick’s The Shining, and, to a certain extent, Pasolini’s Salò) to contemporary art-house arbiters (Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day, Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist); these are films in which the director’s concerns don’t get displaced but rather find a pure outlet of expression. Utilizing horror tropes can give filmmakers free reign for extremes, whether in terms of extraordinary content, stylistic flourish, or, of course, violence. (Don’t we wish Bresson had made a horror film? I suppose L’Argent does come awfully close…) One of the great one-off horror auteurs is surely Nagisa Oshima, although considering the way it was marketed for years, his 1978 Empire of Passion has not long been widely known as the gruesome ghost story it is. Consistently paired with In the Realm of the Senses (even released here as In the Realm of Passion), Empire may have contained echoes of that prior film’s obsessive, destructive eroticism, but it’s a different beast altogether—a kaidan about supernatural vengeance.
It may still come as a surprise, then, to even some of his admirers that Oshima—iconoclastic, fiercely political Japanese New Wave groundbreaker—made a horror film at all. Throughout the 1960s, Oshima was solidifying his stature as an artist working resolutely outside of the studio system, constructing difficult, idiosyncratic movies that explored such pet themes as carnal desire, death, the failure of the left, and his country’s attitudes to race; strong, unsettling works such as Pleasures of the Flesh, Death by Hanging, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide, and Violence at Noon all contain extreme elements that would feel right at home within horror, perhaps, but which functioned within noirish or absurdist frameworks. By the time he made Empire of Passion, following the cause célèbre of the hardcore In the Realm of the Senses, Oshima had become a globally renowned name in art cinema, and like that previous film this was another international coproduction. But neither of them show signs of compromise—in fact, though narratively more accessible than his more experimental works, Empire of Passion contains some of the director’s rawest, most brutal imagery.
Unfolding like a Meiji-era Postman Always Rings Twice, Empire of Passion (its original title, Ai no borei translates as “Love’s Phantom”) transitions from an erotic, explicit tale of amour fou to an eerie, nightmarish creepshow, yet one that defies easy categorization. The film contains risen ghosts seeking revenge, thick mists, brooding specters, and deep dark holes in the earth dug for the purpose of hiding corpses—yet Oshima wasn”t interested in creating a mere spook story. This is a gripping evocation of rural desperation and village life at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as a truly unsettling depiction of crime and punishment. In it, Seki, the wife of a simple rickshaw puller named Gisaburo, murders her husband with the help of her amoral younger lover, Toyoji. Their ecstasy is temporary: their feelings of guilt manifest as Gisaburo’s wicked, dead-eyed, sometimes bleeding ghost, who eventually not only frightens and haunts the couple but takes physical revenge on them.
Empire of Passion may not be a traditional horror film, but some of Oshima’s imagery is unforgettably horrific, including an ultra-stylized midnight ghost-rickshaw ride and a climactic sequence in which Seki and Toyoji are trapped in the well where they threw Gisaburo’s corpse, only to be showered with dirt, leaves, and twigs, one of which pierces Seki’s eyeball in close-up, Fulci-style. Nevertheless, what makes these moments so shocking is that they feel like genuine disruptions to the fabric of the film, which is more a clinical study of domesticity and a dramatic evisceration of two people haunted by some seriously bad decision-making. Whereas in a true genre film, a director will hit certain expected beats, Empire‘s shocks often truly come out of left field, and leave the audience woozy. Ultimately what makes Oshima’s film so disturbing is the pity the director feels for the dead and the pitilessness with which he views the living. Gisaburo is a melancholy, wandering spirit, but his murderers are far worse off, living in a state of constant permeating dread.