Bankrolled in succession by French producer Anatole Dauman, Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) and Empire Of Passion (1978) have always been packaged together, not least by Dauman, who looked to seize on the loosening of censorship codes to bring a new level of sexual explicitness to the art film. The latter was even released under the title In The Realm Of Passion in an effort to yoke it to the earlier film, which had scandalized the world with its unsimulated sex scenes and graphic, ritualized castration. But Oshima balked on replicating the pornographic hook for Empire Of Passion—thus causing a rift with Dauman—and that’s just the first of many places where these films start to diverge, formally and thematically. What they have in common is the theme of consuming desires: Both focus on rogue lovers who push the boundaries until they can push no longer, then have to deal with the consequences.
Set against the imperialist backdrop of mid-’30s Japan, when private matters were met with government intrusion, In The Realm Of The Senses centers on a pair of sexual radicals, but keeps the action rigorously confined to the bedroom. Eiko Matsuda stars as a former prostitute who takes a job working at a hotel; Tatsuya Fuji plays the hotel’s proprietor, who’s so gobsmacked by Matsuda’s beauty and sexual voraciousness that he leaves his wife and family. Oshima depicts their coupling as a relentless, unsustainable fuckfest: At one point, Matsuda even refuses to allow Fuji to take a bathroom break, and never is an erection wasted. In The Realm Of The Senses still has plenty of shock value—the justly notorious ending is to the penis as “Un Chien Andalou” is to the eyeball—but there’s a complexity and progression to the sex scenes that say more about this relationship than dialogue ever could. They consume each other’s bodies, and their souls follow.
Empire Of Passion also follows an affair with destructive impulses, but Oshima broadens his focus beyond the bedroom and into the details of late-19th-century rural life and the traditions of Japanese ghost stories. The lone holdover from the previous film, Fuji returns as a young soldier who relentlessly pursues Kazuko Yoshiyuki, a married woman 26 years his senior, though her surpassing beauty narrows the age gap to practically zip. At first, Fuji forces Yoshiyuki to sleep with him, but soon enough, the two conspire to strangle her husband, each holding an end of the rope. The husband’s return as a ghost transforms the story not into a horror film, but a moody evocation of the guilt that poisons their relationship and can’t be cast away. In both films, Oshima keenly observes what happens when people sin their way past the point of no return.
Key features: Asian cinema scholar Tony Rayns is featured heavily on both discs, with introductory essays on each and a commentary track on In The Realm. Fuji also surfaces for new interviews on both, and In The Realm includes a vintage 1976 interview with the late Oshima and his lead actors. Empire Of Passion’s main attraction is a new video essay called “Double Obsession: Seki, Sada, And Oshima” by film historian Catherine Russell, who examines the female characters in both films.