In 1137 Japan, the Fujiwara clan rule the country, rivalled only by the Cloister Court and the Taira clan, the latter of which boasts a military force. Kiyomori Taira (Raizo Ichikawa) resents his father's deference to the Cloister, and begins to rebel against the Fujiwaras when he discovers that his mother was once one of their courtesans. Kenji Mizoguchi's penultimate film chronicles the rise to power of the samurai Tairas, who were themselves later defeated by the Minamoto clan - the first of the Shoguns.
Kenji Mizoguchi, greatest of Japanese directors, only made two films in colour, and this is the second of them. It's also the last of his many period dramas, a genre of which he was undisputed master. The story is set in the 12th century, at a crucial point in Japanese history: the moment when the samurais ceased to be mere hired fighters, despised by the courtly aristocrats, and took over as the dominant class in Japanese society--a status they would enjoy for the next 700 years. The politics of the film are complex--essentially it tells how one samurai clan, the Taira, broke the arrogant power of the Buddhist temples, with their armies of warrior monks, and began to undermine the supremacy of the Emperor. But it's not necessary to follow all the intricacies of the historical background to appreciate the dramatic sweep of clashing forces and the subtle psychological interplay of emotions as the young hero, Kiyomori, head of the Taira clan, finds his loyalties pulled this way and that, culminating in a crisis of identity as his parentage is called into question. Above all, Tales of the Taira Clan
is supremely beautiful to look at, even by Mizoguchi's standards. The sumptuous sets and costumes, often shot at night or in deep-shaded half-light, take on a jewel-like sheen, and his sweeping, serene camera captures all the turbulence of a troubled era. --Philip Kemp