Kenji Mizoguchi made numerous films throughout his long career, including such touchstones of Japanese cinema as 1941’s The 47 Ronin, 1946’s Utamaro and His Five Women, 1952’s The Life of Oharu, 1953’s Ugetsu (a supernatural thriller, perhaps his best known film in the West), 1954’s Sansho the Bailiff, and his last film, 1956’s Street of Shame, but Princess Yang Kwei-Fei stands out from the rest for two reasons.
For one, it is one of only two color films Mizoguchi ever made, the other being 1955’s Tales of the Taira Clan; for another, it is one of the most delicate and restrained of Mizoguchi’s films, and although the end of the film is tragic, there is a note of possible life-after-death happiness in Princess Yang Kwei-Fei’s final minutes. The story is both simple, and based on historical fact; set in 8th century China, the Emperor (Masayuki Mori) is disconsolate over the death of his wife, and finds comfort in the arms of Yang Kwei-Fei (Machiko Kyô), a member of the powerful Yang family, who want to increase their influence in the Emperor’s government.
The Emperor and Yang Kwei-Fei fall genuinely in love, but their relationship is abused by Yang Kwei-Fei’s relatives, who simply want to gain power, money and influence. General An Lushan (Sô Yamamura), who had originally been instrumental in bringing Yang Kwei-Fei to the emperor’s attention, feels particularly ill-used when he is passed over an important position, while the Yangs daily increase their hold on power.
Mizoguchi’s pastel colors bring this sad, but all too real tale to life in the most ornate and careful fashion, and yet the final impression that one comes away with is the lovers’ improbable triumph, even though they are suffocated by the rituals of the court, and the jealousies and hatreds that eventually bring their idyll to an end. And yet, as his own life was nearing its end, Mizoguchi suggests that all earthly suffering is merely transient, and that in the next world, peace and harmony will erase the pain of life.
Not available on DVD, nor likely soon to be, this is a film that is every bit as elegant and measured as the more famous Ugetsu, and one of Mizoguchi’s most deeply emotional and accessible films. Second hand VHS copies still float about on the web; better that than nothing at all.