Empire of Passion
With an arresting mix of eroticism and horror, Oshima plunges the viewer into a nightmarish tale of guilt and retribution in Empire of Passion (Ai no borei). Set in a Japanese village at the end of the nineteenth century, the film details the emotional and physical downfall of a married woman and her younger lover following their decision to murder her husband and dump his body in a well. Empire of Passion was Oshima’s only true kaidan (Japanese ghost story), and the film, a savage, unrelenting experience, earned him the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival.
I believe this Criterion edition of Nagisa Oshima’s Empire of Passion marks its DVD debut for region 1. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this dual-layer disc. The image has also been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Criterion’s transfer for Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses is rather stunning (and I’m sure it will look gorgeous on Blu-ray) but I have to say the transfer on this one may even top that one slightly. There’s some noticeable noise during a couple of fog drenched sequences, but other than that the image on here is very clean, very sharp. Detail is stunning, colours are wonderful and vibrant, blacks are nice and deep, and flesh tones are perfect.
The print is clean and I can’t recall any bits of dirt and debris, and there’s little to no flickering or pulsating, or any other source problems. This film looks brand new, like this was a transfer for a film just released in the past few years.
I was actually rather stunned by it. Realm looks great, but I was sort of expecting that considering the film’s reputation. But I was stunned to see Criterion put the same amount of care, if not more, into this title. It looks wonderful and I’m disappointed it wasn’t also released on Blu-ray. It looks incredible.
Compared to the Dolby Digital mono track found on In the Realm of the Senses the Japanese track on here is pretty weak. It’s adequate enough, considering the more somber nature of the film, but voices are weaker, music is a little tame, and the overall track is quiet.
Criterion has also included and English dub of the film, about the same quality as the Japanese track, though the English voices sound a little edgier. Of the two definitely stick with the Japanese track (especially since the dubbing is rather horrendous and obvious.)
For supplements Criterion put more of their efforts into their release of In the Realm of the Senses but have rounded up a few things.
Again we get a set of interviews. Where we got about an hour’s worth of interviews on the Realm DVD we only get about 30-minutes worth here.
First is an interview with Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Tatsuya Fuji, running about 17-minutes, presented in anamorphic widescreen. It’s a pretty brief discussion with the two actors, recorded separately, the two reflecting back on the making of the film. Yoshiyuki wanted the part though those around her were concerned about her working with Oshima considering the hardcore sex in In the Realm of the Senses, but she really wanted the role. Fuji mentions an injury he obtained while trying to break down a door in one scene, and the two discuss their acting career together, having worked in many films with each other over the years. It’s a nice interview but really only touches small aspects of the film and its production.
The next interview collection probably comes from a French DVD release of the film. On the Set is a short 13-minute collection of interviews with assistant directors Yasuke Narita and Yoichi Sai, and production consultant Koji Wakamatsu. This is somewhat similar to an interview collection found on the Realm release, though that one was 40-minutes and incredibly thorough, while this one is brief and covers very little about the making of the film. There’s talk about how the film was meant to be opposite of Realm, where that one took place mostly indoors while this one was “love in the outdoors”. There’s a lot of discussion about the film’s director of photography and his attention to detail, even going as far as cutting down trees and placing them elsewhere in a shot. There were also issues with a type of grass that wouldn’t have existed during the film’s time period. The film’s production wasn’t as sordid and problematic as In the Realm of the Senses’ production, so I shouldn’t be surprised that the interviews here aren’t as informative or interesting as the one’s on that disc, but together the two interviews found on this disc do feel rather sparse on information.
Making up somewhat for the lack of an audio commentary is a visual essay by Catherine Russell called Double Obsession: Seki, Sada, and Oshima. Divided into 5 chapters and running about 20-minutes, the visual essay is more of a comparison between Empire of Passion and In the Realm of the Senses (and The Postman Always Rings Twice, interestingly enough) including the social settings, the seasons, tone, and photography, along with its sense of political resistance. She talks briefly of Oshima’s career and criticisms brought against him of misogyny. It’s a decent feature, and of everything on here, may be the one thing to watch if you were to only go for one supplements, despite Russell’s dry vocal presentation.
A 28-page booklet is also included, presenting a nice essay on the film by Tony Rayns, sort of expanding on the visual essay. There’s also a rather good reprinted interview with Nagisa Oshima about the film that might offer the best analysis of it.
It’s a cheaper lower-tier release so I shouldn’t expect much, but the film deserves a little more than this. It’s a rather good film with striking photography, but I felt the supplements overall really only label it as that film Oshima did after In the Realm of the Senses, which doesn’t do it justice.
Despite my indifference to the supplements the disc is still worth picking up. The transfer is absolutely gorgeous, and I’m very impressed with that aspect of this release. One of Criterion’s best transfers in recent years.