This month I am looking at the strangest horror movies I can find from around the world, and this week brought me into unfortunate territory. I cannot purport to know much about horror in Japanese film history, but this first foray is very troubling because, while the horror is at times potent, the very basis is emblematic of horror of a different sort—that of a director not understanding the very principles of his own story. Warning: this article focuses on some graphic material and discusses some heavy topics, namely in the realm of sexual assault. The content, although having no naked or violent images, definitely covers NSFW territory, and deals with topics such as sexual assault and abuse in some detail.
First of all, Empire of Passion (1979) has a horrifically misleading title. Its Japanese name is Ai no borei, or “Love’s Phantom,” which isn’t much better. Every article and webpage about the movie does not seem to pick up on the incongruity between the name and the actual story, with Wikipedia, IMDB, Criterion, and the New York Times using words like “lover,” “affair,” “seduction,” and “romance” to describe what is in truth a story about rape, abuse, and sexual violence. Even the director, Nagisa Ôshima, does not seem to be aware of this, which only adds to the problem.
The story concerns a woman, Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), who lives with her hard-working but fairly dispassionate husband. A significantly younger man, Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), begins to stop by and flirt with her, until one night he comes into her home, throws her into a room while she begs him to leave her alone, and forces himself on her until she no longer argues. Eventually, this turns into a repeated situation, where she asks him to lay off at first but eventually stops, as he commands her to do things for him and she relents, sometimes with tears in her eyes. She appears to react to the physicality of the situation, but the essence for much of the film seems to be a mix of fear, sadness, and confusion.
Yet, everything I have read about this movie does not seem to be remotely aware of this fact. The movie itself, with its horrifically misrepresentative titles, implies a story about passion and love, one that depicts seduction and inability to mitigate sexual passion. Instead, though, the story reeks of abuse—one where a woman is manipulated and assaulted until the point where her agency as a character disappears.
Consider, for example, a pivotal scene where Toyoji is assaulting Seki again (I use that word largely due to the precedent set in previous interactions). He tells her that she must shave herself, referring to her genitalia, and then proceeds to do it for her while she cries. I don’t know about you, but a guy telling a girl to do something to her body, then proceeding to do it while she cries is not passion. It’s abuse. This movie attempts to present this as some moral grey area, or maybe “playing hard to get” (ugh), but it’s abuse, and anyone with a brain should be able to see that. The ambiguity would be better placed in how someone deals with being abused and someone else deals with having abused someone—see this amazing Film Crit Hulk article for further discussion on that topic—but that’s not what happens. This isn’t a viewing of an older movie through a radical feminist lens; it’s basic human understanding. Seki has her power taken away from her through force and manipulation.
The story actually works in several narratives of the ways in which power is taken from Seki, which could lead to a more interesting narrative: her husband appears to have pushed her to be a nanny, which has in a sense has dampened her entire life, and the rumors started about her slowly eat at her sanity. Yet the director is more interested in telling us that this is about passion and love—as shown by the several scenes where important decisions are made during sex or post-coital—and instead of a horrific reversal of Macbeth, we get a movie that is reminiscent of those stories told by that weird forty year old dude you know who philosophizes about women using sentences that start with, “You see, the thing about women is….”
The horror, as a result, is entirely misguided. It focuses on the recurring terror and consequences of lust overtaking rationality and humanity, but the message falls short when passion is so far from the actual central focus to anyone watching who understands how sex and love work. I know this movie came out 35 years ago, but even then people surely knew that passion is not someone throwing you into a room while your child cries and strong-arming you. Even if it seems like I’m applying a modern lens to an older film (which is a moronic claim, to be honest), that’s ruled out by the fact that Seki tells a story about a rape almost immediately after. That conversation is a part of the text, so any claim that this is forcing something into the movie that isn’t there is not only misguided, but also incorrect, because the movie itself brings up the topic.
I am not trying to say that no film can depict these topics; hell, movies can even use such events to characterize both parties. But you cannot just have it occur and not really seem to be a fact that registers with anyone in the movie. If Seki had some sort of reaction to her constant abuse other than tearful lust—which the director seems to think is just a form of passion, rather than a reaction from someone who is being abused—or gave any indication that what is going on is actually wrong, then we might have something. If Toyoji ever had to confront what he has done, then that would be interesting. But we don’t get any of that. It is used wantonly with no awareness for the reality of the situation, which shows a distinct lack of humanity in the script.
I just…I don’t get it. Maybe I’m a shallow film viewer, but I cannot get wrapped up in the finer points of a movie when its very premise is so misguided, so confused, so unable to understand its characters that all the nuances it tries to fabricate do not work. The horror falls flat, the experimental moments are muddled, and the beautiful imagery only exists to support a narcissistic narrative that says more about how intelligent the director views himself than about its characters. This is the type of horror/drama/whatever movie that besmirches any genre it is associated with, and to it I say, “No thanks.”