Thursday, May 21, 2009

EMPIRE OF PASSION (Ai no Borei, 1978)

The second Franco-Japanese production by controversial director Nagisa Oshima threatens for most of its running time to become cinema's most ambitious EC comic, but Oshima ends up having a somewhat different agenda. This is the follow-up to his international success with In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida), which landed him in court back home on obscenity charges. Criterion has just released both films, but the Albany Public Library has the later film first, so that's what I'm reviewing.

The setting is a Japanese village in 1895, during the Meiji era. Gisaburo is the local rickshaw driver for hire. Seki, his wife, is middle aged but doesn't look it. Friends call her "little Seki," and she's still attractive enough to earn the attention of Toyoji, a drifter 26 years her junior who lives with Renzo the village idiot and still wears his old military jacket, which makes him quite the modern figure in this traditional environment. He has an itch that Seki must scratch. Wandering into her house while Gisaburo's on the road, he sees her sleeping with her toddler son at her breast. "Hey, little boy, don't hog it all," Toyoji says, "Let your big brother have a sip." Seki's awake after all and rebuffs him after he cops a feel. He drags her into another room and, how shall I say, orally rapes her. She's turned on, except for her boy wailing in the other room. She tries to shut that sound out and concentrate on Toyoji's more intimate oration, and the affair is on.

Things quickly go too far. Toyoji grows jealous of the hapless Gisaburo, and after enticing Seki into letting him shave her privates, he decides that the rickshaw driver has to die. The idea is to get him drunk and then strangle him, but Gisaburo has a Rasputin-like capacity to absorb alcohol. After three trips to the local liquor dealer for refills, he's finally in a killable condition. The lovers then drag the corpse through the snow and dump it into an abandoned well. Seki tells the village that Gisaburo has gone to Tokyo to look for work, while Toyoji collects leaves under the suspicious eye of a local aristocrat to dump into the well.

By the time three years have passed, people are starting to dream about Gisaburo in a weird way. That's pretty much his cue to start appearing as a ghost. That makes Oshima's movie a kwaidan (or kaidan), which is something different from the ghostiness associated with modern "J-horror," and something even more different from American ghost stories. Over here, the mere thought that there might be ghosts inspires dread, and many horror films create suspense by leaving the existence of ghosts in question. In a kwaidan, by comparison, ghosts are pretty much taken for granted. They're just part of the spiritual landscape in traditional communities like Seki's village. Gisaburo's ghost has no vengeful agenda. He hangs around the house and asks for food, or he pulls his ghostly rickshaw along familiar roads, offering Seki a lift on one eerie occasion. He still loves his wife. At one point Seki sets her house on fire and appears determined to die. Toyoji, trapped outside, flees the scene in despair, only to see the ghost himself. He prepares to defend himself with a rock until he realizes that Gisaburo is imploring him to save Seki. At one point, Seki asks the ghost if he realizes that she helped kill him. He gives no clear answer.

So we have a sort of unnatural menage a trois, further complicated when Seki's eldest daughter comes to visit. Toyoji thinks it unwise for him to visit when Seki's entertaining, but she takes his reticence as a sign that his affection is waning. This gets worse when all the ghost sightings draw an obnoxious, clumsy policeman into the village. Again, Toyoji thinks seeing Seki with this guy hanging around would look suspicious, and his absence only heightens Seki's anxieties. But these two can't resist each other. They share something like true love.

At different moments, each resolves to take the full rap for Gisaburo's death, urging the other to plead innocence. And when they talk of the tortures they'll endure to protect each other, that turns them on even more. When Seki imagines the corpse rotting in the well, that turns them on. Their passion gets more masochistic. He puts his hand over her mouth during sex to still her ravings about the corpse, and she bites deeply into it, bringing him to climax -- all while the policeman is eavesdropping under the floorboards. They finally decide to haul the corpse out of the well, thinking that might appease Gisaburo's spirit. They nearly get trapped inside themselves, and seem to see the ghost dumping leaves on them. They escape, but Seki suffers hysterical blindness, which doesn't stop them from one more bout of muck-covered love before the police close in. In an ironic consummation of their passion, they're tortured together, suspended from tree branches and beaten with rattan canes in a brutal denouement that only proves the depth of their loyalty to each other....

There seem to be three empires coexisting in the film: the titular empire of passion, the empire of nature and spirits, and the political empire of Meiji Japan. The twist in the tale is that the state, rather than the ghost, is the instrument of retribution against the killers. Oshima may be suggesting that the natural order, of which the ghost is a part, may be more tolerant of the lovers' violent passion, or at least more capable of reconciliation, than the state can be. The state also seems to be more cruel even than the murderous lovers, and hypocritical to boot. "This is an age of civilization and enlightenment," the policeman says, "If I torture a man I'll lose my job." But torture he does, with gusto, at the end. I might be able to whittle the empires down to two if you'll buy an argument that the empire of passion is part of the empire of nature, that Seki and Toyoji's affair is a kind of natural phenomenon, while the state's violence is the unnatural force and the source of whatever ultimate horror this ghost story offers.

This is the first Oshima film I've seen and it's a beautiful piece of work, full of vibrant landscapes, authentically grungy interiors, and uncanny visions. Oddly, there seemed to be a sharper visual contrast between the gritty environment of the peasants and the immaculate, geometric domain of the doomed young master and his mother than between the peasants' everyday existence and the ghostly interventions. Kudos to Yoshio Miyajima's cinematography and to the folks at Criterion for confecting another luscious bit of DVD eye candy.

Toru Takemitsu composed a nicely evocative score, while the cast, led by Kazuko Yoshiyuki as Seki and Tatsuya Fuji as Toyoji, is uniformly fine -- possibly excepting whoever had the thankless job of playing the village idiot who communicates only by yelling.

In the end, Ai no borei is neither a horror movie nor a sex movie in any strict generic sense, though it definitely comes closer to the latter. It's not nearly as explicit as Realm of the Senses is said to be, though it's still a very sensual experience. It's definitely an adult movie, but I mean that in the "work of art" sense of the term.

Here's an oddly static trailer for the American release of the film.

And here's a French trailer (with Greek subtitles) that gives you a better idea.

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