Nagisa Oshima, director of the controversial "In the Realm of the Senses", tells a much more familiar and accessible tale in "Empire of Passion". Although both films share similarities in their setting (repressive Japan) and plot (an affair), they couldn't be anymore different. "Empire of Passion", instead of being a more brooding and disturbing sexual drama, is a sort of conventional ghost story. Both films have their merits, and although "In the Realm of the Senses" is a better film, "Empire of Passion" is certainly a film that you'd be more willing to recommend to a friend.
Set in a small Japanese village in 1895, an unseen narrator tells us of the affair between an ex-soldier, Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), and Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), the wife of a rickshaw puller, Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). Although the relationship continues steadily while Gisaburo is out, problems arise when Toyoji, driven by his lust, shaves Seki. The two realize that Gisaburo will figure out the affair once he sees that Seki is shaved, and thus Toyoji proposes that the two kill Gisaburo. And so, while he's sleeping, the two strangle the rickshaw puller to his death.
Toyoji and Seki throw Gisaburo's body down and old well, and Seki tells the village people that he had gone off to Tokyo. One day, however, Gisaburo's ghost, blue and silent, appears to Seki. Meanwhile, the townspeople become suspicious of Gisaburo's three year absence, and Seki finds her guilt becoming too much to suppress. As Gisaburo continues to appear to Seki, Seki is driven mad enough to attempt burning herself alive.
Although the film's progression is not unlike any other ghost story we've seen in the past few decades, it's remarkably effective. Gisaburo appears infrequently enough to remain mysterious and horrifying, and Kazuko Yoshiyuki's performance as a guilt-ridden wreck of a woman is convincing. There are a few scenes, like one where Gisaburo takes Seki for a ride on his rickshaw down misty streets, that are as chilling as anything seen lately in the horror genre. Oshima understands that the true horror is Seki's psychological state, not the paranormal visitations.
"Empire of Passion" is highly entertaining and, at times, it still remains legitimately horrifying. Sure, a modern audience might find a blue man fading into frame a bit silly, but it works because of the chilling atmosphere Oshima was able to accomplish. The film was recently released by the Criterion Collection, and it's price tag is low enough to warrant a purchase. It's a good film, not a great one, but it's accessible enough to revisit and show your family members and friends.