The award for “Best Direction” at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival actually caps the achievement of a decade for Japan’s Nagisa Oshima. His latest film, “Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion),” a ghostly story of doomed love, saw its world premiere as Japan’s official entry in the most important international film festival, where over 500 films are seen by thousands of critics and industry representatives in an unbelievably hectic two weeks.
Last year the direction award?was not presented at all, but this May 30 Oshima went before the select guests and television cameras at the ceremony with deep bows and palms pressed together in gratitude. Amid the pomp and confusion, his statement was a simple “Arigato gozaimashita.” Much has led up?to Oshima’s receipt of this coveted award, for he is no newcomer to Cannes. “I first came here in 1968 with my film “Koshikei (Death by Hanging),” he reminisced for my benefit at his hotel in Cannes, “because Hayao Shibata (of Shibata Organization/France Eiga-sha in Tokyo) persuaded me to let him try selling my films abroad. It was a good time for me because I had coincidentally been invited to Moscow and Poland, so I came here too. It?was a very harrowing first trip, though, because of the May demonstrations in Paris that year. Having survived that, this is my sixth trip to Cannes in 10 years.” For Oshima, Cannes has provided not only international exposure and acclaim, but a new route toward film production.
“Mr. Shibata wanted to introduce my films in Europe partly because we could all see that the situation for independent filmmakers was becoming very unfavorable again in Japan in the late 1960s. After Cannes in 1968, Anatole Dauman of Argos Films in Paris began distributing “Death by Hanging” (a film treating capital punishment and the problems of the large Korean minority in Japan). Then later he took “Gishiki (The Ceremony)” (1971, a postwar history of Japan through the relationships in one aristocratic family). He and Mr. Shibata work very well together. They are both very sensitive people.” Distribution in France through Dauman was the beginning of a still closer relationship. “In 1972 after ‘Natsuno no Imoto (Dear Summer Sister)” (about the Japanese relationship with Okinawa) I dissolved my independent production company, Sozo-sha.” At the time, Oshima made a lengthy statement in the Japanese press about the need to start over again from zero, because the Japanese major production companies appeared to be desperate enough to consider good projects proposed by independents on a kind of subcontract basis. Just as he himself was announcing the demise of independent production in Japan, however, he was on the verge of initiating an international coproduction setup that would enable him to remain independent. His 1976 “Ai no Korida (In the Realm of the Senses)” was filmed in Japan and produced in France by Anatole Dauman. “With Mr. Dauman,” Oshima maintains, “I have had complete freedom as a director.”
As the film immediately preceding his current prize-winner, “In the Realm of the Senses” was a Cannes sensation. “It was shown out of competition in the Directors’ Fortnight,” reports Kazuko Kawakita of the Shibata Organization, but we had to show it 13 times there was such a huge demand to see it.” One of the reasons for the demand was the hard-core pornographic visuals, which also caused some difficulties for the film. “The Cannes festival administration was very apologetic, as they liked it very much, but they had to reject it from official competition because of the strict rule against hard-core content,” Oshima reveals. “When they accepted “Empire of Passion” for this year they apologized to me again about the rejection two years ago.”
Many will recall that “In the Realm of the Senses” was also prevented from entering the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1976 because its pornographic content kept it blocked in customs. “Empire of Passion” represents a radical departure from the hard-core of “In the Realm of the Senses,” even though it tells another simple story of illicit, obsessive eroticism, stars Tatsuya Fuji as the lover again, and is again coproduced with Dauman. Oshima explains:?”‘In the Realm of the Senses’ was a script in which every line of dialogue revolved around sex, and the lovers created a totally artificial world of eroticism in their private tatami room. But in ‘Empire of Passion’ the lovers are poor inhabitants of a farming village, and they have no choice but to continue their lives within their community and their labor.
“Because these lovers have no escape from society, family responsibilities and backbreaking toil, it would have been inappropriate to treat their story in hard-core fashion. They can only love in hurried clandestine meetings in the village, or out on the mountainsides buffeted by the wind. “Much as I was gratified by the numbers of people who came to see my?work for the first time with ‘In the Realm of the Senses,’ I feel the story of the lovers in ‘Empire of Passion’ is far more tragic. The first film showed only the flower of love, while the second shows the stem, the leaves, and down to the very roots as well.”
Oshima is more than delighted with his award. On the afternoon the prize were announced he sat across a table covered?with beer bottles and surrounded by friends. “Before I came here I hardly imagined my work would ever be seen outside Japan,” he said. “Now I feel the last 10 years of commuting back and forth to France have been?well worth the effort.” He did, however, have a confession to make: “This time, you see, I had someone back home praying for me.” It seems that his sister had undertaken to secure him a prize in traditional Japanese fashion.
This review as originally published on Saturday, June 17, 1978.