The onscreen title is L’EMPIRE DE LA PASSION.

Japan, the turn of the 20th Century. Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) lives a quiet life with her rickshaw driver husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). He regularly tells her how much younger than her years she looks; she dotes on him and their young son.

Into this peaceful set-up comes Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), a soldier recently returned from service. He loiters around his old village with little purpose or place, quickly latching on to Seki for company during the daytime. This leads to Gisaburo casually asking her if Toyoji may have designs on her.

Seki laughs this suggestion off, and continues to dutifully tend to her mildly chauvinistic husband’s whims.

However, one afternoon Toyoji arrives to find Seki asleep on the floor beside her son. He wakes her by fondling her breast and takes her to a nearby chamber where he performs oral sex on her … while the little boy waits crying outside.

Seki later tells Toyoji that what happened was a one-off, and must not occur again. But he’s an insistent fellow, and soon enough they’re at it again … and again … and again. Certainly, they don’t show physical signs of their 26 year age gap.

Gisaburo remains oblivious to the affair, much to Toyoji’s growing chagrin. One rainy day, he meets with Seki and invites her to his brother’s abode where he’s been staying. During a bout of typically erotic lovemaking, Toyoji suggests shaving his lover’s pubic hairs. With some hesitation, she agrees.

Once this deed is done, he tells Seki that together they must now kill Gisaburo: otherwise, once he sees her bald minge, he will surely know that she has been unfaithful.

In a masterfully orchestrated set-piece of suspense and subtle horror, murder is committed and a body is dumped into a nearby well. But any chance of happiness for the illicit lovers is short-lived, as events take a turn toward the supernatural …

Filmed in 1978 as a companion piece to his notorious breakthrough 1976 film IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, Nagisa Oshima’s PASSION is seldom spoke of when the great director’s work is discussed.

However, it is in fact one of his most purely enjoyable works. Imbued with the same arthouse aesthetics renowned with other Oshima efforts, PASSION is propelled by a more conventional plotting system which allows the atmosphere to build steadily, without the need for inference to deeper themes. It is a very western film in this respect, telling a simple story in a straightforward, undemanding fashion.

Coupled with a western-style thriller score and frequent bursts of softcore sex, the film looks consistently pretty and benefits from a strong sense of impending dread to complement its style. Perhaps the fact that Oshima’s screenplay was based on Itoko Namura’s novel helped ground him.

Fuji is marvellous as the conniving, manipulative suitor: proffering a different side of the similarly dark, sexually consumed character he conveyed in SENSES. Watching his performances back-to-back make for most interesting comparisons, the cool of SENSES having been dropped here to reveal a much more obvious yearning.

Oshima directs with consummate skill, empowering his actors to breathe with natural quirkiness and fill the silent passages with telling reactions, contemplative moments and so on. His eye for beautifully composed, carefully coloured settings never fails to impress; his control over storytelling is much more fluent here than in the likes of, say, MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE, PLEASURES OF THE FLESH or even SENSES.

I can only assume that the reason this film didn’t register on the same level as SENSES is purely down to the fact that it did not court the same controversy (the sex, while equally pivotal to the plot here, is not explicit). But PASSION is arguably the better, more entertaining film of the two, and has stood the test of time well as "a kaidan variation on THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE" (Jasper Sharp’s words in the disc’s extra features).

Optimum/Studio Canal release EMPIRE OF PASSION uncut in an agreeably priced DVD/blu-ray combo pack. Only the blu-ray disc was made available for review purposes, but I believe both discs contain the same content.

PASSION looks stunning on this 50GB blu-ray disc. Presented in an MPEG-4 AVC 1080P transfer which preserves the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio (and enhances it for 16x9 televisions, of course), colours pop while images are sharp without obvious trace of over-enhancing. A natural, filmic texture is retained throughout. Depth rivals clarity in terms of breathtaking results and scenes of rain, water rippling etc demonstrate just how fine the detail is in this surprisingly vibrant, clean presentation.

Japanese 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio comes across really well, as do the easily readable and well-written optional English subtitles.

The main menu page is a static affair. From there, a pop-up scene-selection menu allows access to the film via 8 chapters.

Extras-wise, a 13-minute retrospective entitled "Sur le Tournage" kicks things off with assistant directors Yusuke Narita and Yoichi Sai discussing how the film came to be. Also featuring contributions from production consultant Koji Wakamatsu, this is a less anecdotal offering than that which graces the SENSES blu – but is still an engaging, albeit brief, look back on Oshima’s preparations regardless.

Much more insightful, especially when discussing themes and periodic accuracy, is the 53-minute panel discussion that takes place in honour of the film, at Birbeck College. Moderated by Julian Ross, this features invaluable contributions from Jasper "Behind the Pink Curtain" Sharp as well as a friendly debate on whether the film’s lack of overt subtext was a reaction to Oshima’s mainstream appeal of the time. Sharp calls the film the "most accessible" of the director’s, and I’m inclined to agree.

Not as stuffy or as academic as many of these critics’ forums often are, this makes for an interesting and informative alternative to an audio commentary track.

The set is rounded off by a booklet, which was not available for review.

Optimum’s gorgeous blu-ray disc will hopefully help this underrated Oshima film finally find the audience it truly deserves. If you like your ghost films slyly creepy, and with a whole lot of arty erotica thrown in for good measure, then you need to see this.

Great stuff.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Studiocanal
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review