The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Asian Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Shin heike monogatari, like his earlier, uninteresting 47 Ronin (1941), also done on an epic scale, contains the most violent material with which Kenji Mizoguchi had to contend since his postwar conversion to Buddhism.
Text summarizes the history involved. “In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Fujiwara clan ruled Japan, but by the twelfth century its influence had begun to wane. Two imperial courts contended for power: the official one; the Cloister Court, headed by the emperior who had abdicated, which ruled behind the scenes. As temples, equipped with their own armies, sought to establish the primacy of their own power, both courts depended on samurai—paid warriors the use of whom exhausted them as a class. The Cloister Court employed samurai of the Taira clan.” Thus “were sown the seeds of military government” that “dominated Japan for 700 years.”
The opening crane shot, descending onto a crowded, contentious market replete with political debate regarding the two courts, homes in on Japan’s past. Like most great art about the past, Mizoguchi’s films reflect on the present, that is, the burden of the past that the present totes. Shin heike monogatari suggests that the Japanese people—an extension of the samurai that once represented their interests—remain at the mercy of national politics.
Mizoguchi’s final masterpiece owes something to Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) in its exploration of ruling court intrigue. Mizoguchi, though, is most interested in how individuals cope with the moral dilemmas that confront them. At the film’s core is a twist of historical reality, as the heir to rule of the Taira clan discovers he may be, in fact, the son of either the ruling emperor or a monk. Mizoguchi is plumbing the ambiguous, uncertain waters of Japan’s postwar identity.
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