Empire of Passion is only a horror film by way of technicality. Yes, there’s a murder, yes, there’s a ghost, but what it’s really all about is guilt. Set in a Japanese village in 1895, our protagonists are Seki, wife of the rickshaw driver, and Toyoji, local man-about-village and master of the lewd grin.
Seki has a reasonably mundane life, raising a kid, fetching sake for her husband to booze up on, and the occasional visit from Toyoji bringing steam buns. Toyoji, however, has some other ideas. It was problematic for me that it wasn’t set up like the two of them had this underlying attraction that was inevitably going to break out, but rather that Toyoji’s going to have his affair no matter what and so rapes her until she considers them a couple.
Nothing like the plot point in Rashomon (“The shame of having been with two men means one of them will have to die”) is made explicit, but Seki’s allegiance shifts irrevocably to Toyoji and he decides they have to kill her husband. Seki gets him as drunk as she possibly can, and they strangle him with some rope and dump him in a well.
Time passes, the affair remains secret, and the ghost appears. Gisaburo (Seki’s husband) as a ghost is not really played for scares for the audience. He’s not glimpsed in windows or corners, nor thankfully with hair draped down his face. He’s just there, he speaks slowly, he can be seen by anyone.
It’s not scary, but it is creepy, particularly in one scene where the ghost asks for sake, and Seki runs off and brings it back, serves it to him and wakes up the next morning dangling the bottle over the well where they dumped his body. His appearances are just to provoke guilt in his wife and her lover.
And it works. Seki is thoroughly freaked out, too scared to sleep at home and being kept at a distance by Toyoji, who is still intent on keeping the affair a secret. She breaks down more and more psychologically, and then an inspector comes to town to investigate her husband’s disappearance.
Empire of Passion as definite similarities to the director’s previous, better know, film In the Realm of the Senses, though with far less sex. Far, far less. Come to think of it, that’s probably why the former is better known. They’re both about uncomfortable, doomed affairs where one party gets in over their head. Except Empire of Passion has a ghost, so we’re covering it. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it as a horror film, you’ll be expecting more scares and less metaphor.
But it’s definitely worth checking out as a period drama (no, that doesn’t always mean 19th century England) with creepy elements. The setting is excellently done, and can create mood all by itself, particularly when lashing rain. The characters’ psychological breaking down is engaging, and it ends strongly, with the conclusion of the investigation into Gisaburo’s disappearance.