Obsessive passion, death by strangulation and two lovers facing an indifferent or hostile world – Nagisa Ôshima’s Empire of Passion (Ai No Borei) has certain similarities with his In the Realm of the Senses (Ai No Corrida). The films are said to be companion pieces, but Ai No Borei made in 1978, two years after Corrida, has a much better developed story.
As we mentioned in our earlier review, Ai No Corrida follows the uninterrupted coupling of a Japanese couple until one of them finally meets a sticky end. Ai No Borei tones down the sex (and passion), instead the film is a ghost story and study in guilt and revenge. The increased drama may well be because it is based on a book (The Case File of the Murder of Gisaburo or 車屋儀三郎事件 by Itoko Nakamura) with all the benefits of plotting and characterisation that implies.
Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is a beautiful middle aged wife of an older man, the hard working rickshaw-wallah Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). She begins an affair with much younger man, Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), who has just finished his military service and wanders round with his military jacket unbuttoned and the same cheeky smirk that you’ll recognise if you’ve seen Ai No Corrida. Toyoji soon comes up with a ruse to encourage them to murder Gisaburo, which they do before throwing his body down a well in the woods.
The film then winds forward three years to when the repercussions of the dreadful act catch up with the perpetrators. Not only do the locals start asking awkward questions about why Gisaburo has been gone for so long, but Seki starts seeing her husband’s ghost. A Lady MacBeth-like guilt starts to rob her of her faculties.
The spectre isn’t terribly scary, but then ghosts in movies aren’t quite as threatening as serial killers or ghouls from another dimension. Besides, Ôshima doesn’t play this like a typical horror movie. The ghost appears to deliver his moral message, and it is Seki rather than the audience who get a fright. For the toy boy Toyoji, all these supernatural goings on are more annoying than anything – “If he shows up here, I’ll give him a piece of my mind. Damn Ghosts.”
Ai No Borei is in the tradition of Japanese ghost stories known as Kaidan rather than Western horror. Even the idea of a murder victim being thrown down a well only to return to haunt the murderer is found in the famous story of Banchō Sarayashiki, a servant girl who is murdered by her Samurai lord and then returns to haunt him.
As mentioned earlier, Ai No Borei is a companion piece to Ai No Corrida, but as well as sharing themes and tropes, there are certain divergences too. The strangulation starts the action in this film for one. While Corrida takes part inside, Borei ventures outside into woods and is more interesting for this. As well as seeing much less sex, the couple’s relationship is more fraught. The empire of passion is more treacherous than the simplicities of the realm of the senses.
As two studies of obsession, Borei is spookier than Corrida, but strangely slightly less unsettling. The appearance of a ghost just isn’t believable, while an obsessive love that ends up with the death of one of the lovers is something we read about in the papers. Despite this, the film is probably more enjoyable, courtesy of the plot and more varied scenery.