The same year he crafted the intimate period romance of Princess Yang Kwei-fei, Kenji Mizoguchi tackled the sprawling spectacle genre with this color epic -- a ying/yang of cinematic storytelling, with the two halves harmonized musically by the same artistic delicacy. Set in 1137 A.D., the narrative is a tapestry of feudalistic intrigue and decadent official cabals against which the director stages the spiritual growth of his impetuous young hero (Raizo Ichikawa), the son of dignified samurai leader Ichijiro Oya and heir to the Taira clan. Returning triumphantly from quelling the unrest of a divided nation, Oya and his warriors are humiliatingly denied any rewards by the cloistered government (for, as one palatial wag asserts, "only poor samurai are useful"), one in a series of episodes landing the Tairas in the middle of a power struggle between the aristocracy and the rebellious monks tearing up the land. The screen is scarcely less than bustling with conflict, all scrupulously captured by the majestically sweeping camera, but the genre's inherent muscularity is subtly (even subversively) femininized by Mizoguchi's emphasis on the moral-emotional quandaries of the characters -- even the most physical of confrontations (an ambush to foil an assassination plot, a melee erupting out of the spring festival) are painted not in Kurosawa's crossed-katana close-up of brawniness but in the long-shot of spiritual contemplation. To Mizoguchi, the expressive epiphanies of the hero's relationships with his warrior father and courtesan mother (pieced together via contrasting flashbacks: a dig at Rashomon, the director's famous bÍtes noires?) are no less epic than the historical shifts bringing a country together. Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa and Kohei Sugiyama. With Michiko Kogure, Tatsuya Ishiguro, Yoshiko Kuga, and Eitaro Shindo.
--- Fernando F. Croce