Its first and last bookending scenes—scenes in which everything has been lost—excluded, Yôkihi (The Empress Yang Kwei Fei) encompasses its scenes in their totality: everything is shown that could be shown. A pageantry show (indeed, the plot itself concerns the clothes a woman wears), like a pastel-colored musical, it’s the stylistic opposite of Akasen Chitai (Street of Shame), his black-and-white last masterpiece, in which everything overflows the camera’s scope and the scene’s limits and must be alluded to. Yet Mizoguchi is still a master of synecdoche, making individual scenes and tableaux stand in for entire histories whose individual events may be absent, but may be collectively represented in a single shot—a few people in costume signaling an army, and an army signaling an entire country’s rebellion. It’s just one of the ways Yôkihi is beautifully artificial: whereas Akasen Chitai will elide no small details of the courtesans’ everyday lives, Yôkihi, the movie that shows almost everything it needs to, is perhaps the movie that shows less. Major developments are not so much developed as narrated patiently in a few words by characters on-screen. It’s a sublime technique, undoubtedly influential for Resnais and Oliveira (who’s called it the greatest Japanese film of all time), faulty—maybe—only because the events are totally contrived.
The plot, an old Japanese legend about a Chinese emperor, is the classic Audrey Hepburn rags-to-riches fable (Sabrina, Funny Face, My Fair Lady, etc.), the rare Mizoguchi tale without an obvious villain. An emperor, attempting recovery after his wife’s death, falls in love with a primped courtesan who retains a feisty dignity in resenting all these decorations over her likewise retained goodness and innocence; the emperor falls in love with her as they disguise themselves among the commoners, becoming important only to each other. People are what they wear—the movie could be called The Empresses’ New Clothes—but when the courtesan’s family begins exploiting their newfound royalty, the rest of society revolts, committing further abuses of power in insisting on the death of the emperor’s girlfriend. The emperor must choose between society and his personal life, but the real point of the film, as in all of Hepburn’s, is that power exists to be abused, and happiness can only be found in embracing one’s commonness (common to all, but denied by the pretentious majority). In this, and as a fairy tale, it’s an Ugetsu companion piece: power and happiness may be mutually exclusive, but both are fleeting; love, as always in Mizoguchi, may make life worth living, but it also makes it a hell of a lot more tortuous.
And in its own way, Yôkihi is even a ghost story. In the moment the couple finds happiness singing and dancing (above), Mizoguchi’s camera, tilted down from above, in a favorite Mizoguchi position of almost cosmic distance, does something a Mizoguchi camera almost never does: it moves in, as if to embrace the fun, and emphasize the emperor’s gravity as the focus of the scene. He remains firmly rooted, but the girlfriend flitters by, left to right and right to left, even fleeing off-screen and returning back, in this film that uses off-screen space judiciously. She’s the ghost: presenting the illusion the emperor can’t actually have, enchanting even as she disappears, comes back, and disappears.