Haunting, Taunting, Daunting

20 Oct 2013: Empire of Passion (DVD, 1976, Nagisa Oshima)

Though entirely different in its subject matter from the other films of Oshima I’ve seen, it too possesses the same sort of mystical eerieness that pervades the others. It’s not so much the unspoken hilarity of the solemn ritual that carries this feeling here, but arguably the more “logical” theme of the ghost story, with some of the most effective weather effects seen on film (a thick blizzard billowing across the top of a well, pea-soup mists) augmenting its obscurity and unapproachability. Although the ghost results from an adulterous murder, his haunting of the lovers and the town is less in service of indignation and retribution or even scariness (like a Kuroneko, say) as it is of revealing the spectre of shame and perhaps just bewilderment that society can be so wantonly defied – the ghost never questions or lectures his wife, only appearing with a blank expression, asking for a drink, or impotently offering to help her – he no longer knows the way – as she makes her way home. Though foregrounded and closed in on, counter to much of the film’s cinematographical wideness of frame, he is a hapless harbinger of the real stress in the film: the ostracism of germinating town gossip, the fading of an initial romantic firestorm, self-loathing, and the futile but imperative need of the law for severe punishment of irreversible transgressions. The screen-filling wheels of the husband’s rickshaw emphasize both the hypnotic visual sense of endlessly spinning spokes as intractably mysterious, like the ocean tide in which lone beachcombers seek secrets, and the unrelenting drive forward of human (and perhaps more-than-human) impulses, continuing to roll beyond one man’s grave as “new” ways of life – i.e. sexual liberation – progress.

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