Nagisa Oshima is the best film director in Japan still making good movies. There are other good directors (Kon Ichikawa), but they are reduced to doing company hack-work. Oshima can still do the films he likes, partly because he gets financial backing in France from Argos Films, the producer of both “Ai-no Korida (In the Realm of the Senses)” and “Ai-no Borei (Empire of Passion).” Thus ?”Ai-no Borei” is officially treated as a French film.
Despite the fact that “Ai-no Borei” lacks the explicit eroticism of “Ai-no Korida,” it is still a continuation of the same theme: passion leading to inevitable destruction.
The passion in this case is between Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji) and O-seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), the wife of a poor rickshaw-puller, Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). Toyoji’s love for the much older O-seki is so all-consuming that he talks her into killing her husband, a perfectly decent man. Her desire for the young ex-soldier is powerful enough, though, for her to be a willing accomplice in the murderous deed.
All this takes place during the Meiji Period in a tiny hamlet in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture. The life of country folk in those days was miserable and poverty-stricken and the passionate love between Toyoji and O-seki is like a flower growing on a dung heap. Or at least, that is what Oshima intends to show. For me, it is not entirely convincing. Every scene is filmed so very beautifully that the village and its inhabitants look almost like a picture postcard, which works against the desired contrast of burning passion and bleak poverty.
It is the intimate inside scenes that work best: Toyoji boyishly seducing O-seki for the first time; Gisaburo enjoying his sake just before he gets strangled to death. The expert lighting of veteran cameraman Yoshio Miyajima casts a loving and intimate glow on the more sensual scenes.
The outside scenes, full of pretty color effects, work less well and seem contrived. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scenes where the murdered Gisaburo comes back as a ghost. Oshima has made him into a very lifelike ghost, deathly white, but quite tangible. He does not hold a special grudge against the lovers, but he tends to complain of the cold in the well which forms his hastily contrived grave. When he suddenly appears in O-seki’s dwelling he is a convincing and pathetic presence, driving O-seki to despair, but when he takes her for rickshaw rides through a pastel colored landscape through storms of dry ice, the film starts looking a bit too much for comfort like a well made Hammer Film production.
His frequent appearances do frighten the hell out of O-seki, though, and when the villagers gossip about the mysterious disappearance of Gisaburo and rumors of ghosts bring the local constabulary on the scene, things get very unpleasant indeed. The lovers are finally tortured into confession and the decomposed body of the rickshaw man is fished out of his well. Toyoji and O-seki die the violent death that threatened them ever since their passion got out of control.
Oshima keeps on coming back to this theme. In almost all of his films he shows how people are destroyed by their irrational passions, whether expressed through crime (“Cruel Stories of Youth”) or sex (“Ai-no Borei”). Uncontrolled passion inevitably leads to destruction, but Oshima loves his subjects for trying. Although death is the result, every act of subversion is an act on the side of life.
Despite the occasional lapses in style, “Ai-no Borei” has some marvelous performances, especially by Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tatsuya Fuji, but also in the smaller parts, notably Taiji Tonoyama, in a cameo performance as a deaf villager. The music by Toru Takemitsu is excellent. It is unobtrusive, yet it enhances every scene.
The film should definitely be seen, if only to be reassured that it is still possible, albeit with foreign backing, to make a first-rate film in this country. The film is showing at the Yurakucho Miyukiza.
This review as originally published on Saturday, Oct. 28, 1978