A rousing and visually elegant period spectacle, Taira Clan Saga (1955) is a singular film in the oeuvre of Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi – indisputably among the handful of directors who can lay claim to the title of “Japan’s greatest ever filmmaker” – for a couple of reasons. For starters, it is one of only two color films (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei being the other one) he made throughout his career. Mizoguchi’s films are often characterized by lush and strikingly beautiful black n’ white compositions and poetic camera movements which allow most of his stories, whether in a period or contemporary setting, to attain a rare timelessness. Taira Clan Saga has many of these trademarks, yet for the first time with a Mizoguchi film, the impression one gets is largely that of just another period film. Secondly, this is one of the few Mizoguchi films that is not centered around a strong female protagonist. In fact, the only prominent female character in the film is a surprisingly unsympathetic one. Of course, this is by itself not a problem, though the absence of a compelling central character and the merely adequate performances mean the film lacks the sweeping, humanist charge of his very best work even if it is never less than fascinating.
The one thing of great interest in Taira Clan Saga is the period setting itself, as it depicts a slice of medieval Japanese history from a time as early as the 12th century. As opposed to jidaigeki films which are set in the Edo period, this is the period where the major power struggles and conflicts are between the nobility and priesthood, and the samurai – who would later become part of the nobility, a fact the film hints at near the end – are only petty warriors, little more than foot soldiers, and a lot of the dramatic tension in the film comes from the desire of the penurious samurai to have their arduous efforts acknowledged and be accepted into the nobility. The political backdrop against which this movie is set is this – the then retired Emperor, cloistered in a monastery decided to re-assert his authority, which the nobility in the current Imperial Court understandably have a problem with. The titular Taira Clan is a clan of samurai who fight on behalf of the Imperial Court, while the monk raise their own army and continue to terrorize the country under the facade of upholding the great traditions of the country. The three warring parties can be said to represent three different times – the priests, who literally carry around the souls of the dead ex-Emperors are the self-proclaimed bastion of the country’s past, the current emperor and his nobility who represent the ruling party and the country’s present and who do everything in their might to preserve this status quo and finally the samurai, the epitome of individuality, bravery and selfless service who would pave the way for Japan’s future.
The central character in this saga is Kiyomori, the son of the head of the Taira Clan, who is somewhat frustrated by the selfless idealism of his father Tadamori and wishes for recognition and riches from the Emperor. His own roots though are shown to be uncertain, once the real identity of his mother as a courtesan is revealed. The search for this identity leads to a brief, Rashomon-like passage, where two separate and only loosely similar accounts of a single incident are provided which also interestingly show the courtesan at the center of this three-way power struggle. The courtesan’s character is curiously underdeveloped, yet is a most compelling figure, serving as an indicator of the position of women in the three respective worlds. She is the samurai’s mother, carrying herself around with an air of nobility in the clan residence, yet little more than an object of lust and merriment for the monks and the ministers.
The Taira Clan’s continuing efforts in quelling the thuggery and the nuisance of the monks finally gets Tadamori the attention of the Monk-Emperor who decides to ennoble him and this begins to hint at the gradual change in the shift of power in the country. Indeed, the film’s major focus seems to be on examining the sociopolitical conditions which chart this course for the country’s future – as the voice-over near the beginning informs us “Momentous events are inevitable”. Mizoguchi, in his usual style, favors the long take and does not offer many close-ups, thus successfully creating a distance between the viewer and the events on screen so that there is room for thoughtful meditation on these history-defining events. A particular scene which stayed with me occurs near the beginning, after Tadamori and Kiyomori successfully return from an expedition only to be greeted with coldness and scorn by the court. Their return back to their clan is without the slightest sense of victory – men have died, men have been badly injured and Kiyomori has to sell a horse so they can afford to celebrate with some food and sake. Mizoguchi’s camera calmly surveys this situation and relies on our memory of other period films set in the more recent eras of shoguns, samurai and vassals, to draw a parallel to the similar poverty that would later be faced by peasants and ordinary townsfolk. It raises an important question about the very narrative of historical process. Momentous events will occur and change the course of history, but how much can be said to have really changed – and indeed how much of this change can be classified as progress – if change merely equals the supplanting of old myths and social inequalities with new ones?