Nate’s Double Features (+1): Princess Edition

For this edition of
Nate’s Double Features we’ll be looking at films with princesses in them. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to see two features – Kon Ichikawa’s Princess from the Moon and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Princess Yang Kwei-Fei – along with a James Ivory short film called Autobiography of a Princess. They were all very different and non of them really told me much about what it might be like to be a princess, but…they all had “princess” in the title. 

Princess from the Moon (Dir. Kon Ichikawa, 1987)

Of our three princess films, this one is by far the weirdest. The title alone should tip us off to the fact that this is not going to be your normal movie about a princess in a castle or whatever; it’s a sci-fi movie set in feudal Japan circa 700 AD.

The movie starts out like a typical Japanese period piece: a maker of bamboo items and his wife have just lost their child to illness. They’ve buried her out in the bamboo forest. One night, a great explosion of fire appears in that very section of the forest. When he visits the grave to see if anything is left, he finds everything in tact. Not far from the grave he finds a little brown pod thing that cracks open to reveal a baby. The baby is taken home and quickly morphs into a four or five year old child. And shortly after that, she morphs into a young woman of beauty. Once she’s a woman of beauty, some high up officials become interested in her. So, to decide which one she will accept, she sends them all on fatalistic missions that involve fleeces made from volcanic rats, trees that grow diamonds, and the head of a dragon that lives in the Indian Sea.

This description alone should give you a sense of just how wild this movie is. But just to drive my point home, I’ll provide a picture of the DVD box:

The glory of Kon Ichikawa’s film is that it borders on camp silliness. I found myself laughing at the sheer audacity of it’s images – a five year old Japanese girl with sea blue eyes magically healing a cut on her forehead; a gold and purple rat fleece being shown off as an object of desire; a brown pod emitting some type of vapor to (and from) a grave. It’s too outlandish to be taken seriously, which is what Ichikawa wants us to do in its final moments.

The space egg takes the life of a dead girl.

But it’s also sincere enough where it must be respected. SPOILERS COMING. The ending of the movie, when our space-child, Kaya, is taken back to be with her own, evokes Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. <Ichikawa gives us a beautifully detailed spaceship and allows us the time to marvel at it. Though we are in the midst of some of the worst hokum in all of cinema, we can’t help but be a little dazzled. Spoilers Ended.

Princess from the Moon is not a good movie in the normal sense at all. In fact, it’s kind of stupid. Feudal Japan and modern sci-fi concepts are about the two most incongruous elements that you could put together. It makes Princess from the Moon painfully bad as an artistic achievement but enormously enjoyable nonetheless. I almost considered keeping it out of this column for the simple fact that I could never figure out exactly how Kaya was supposed to be a princess. She’s the child of peasants in her Japanese incarnation and her social status among her people is never touched on. I guess she’s a figurative princess because she came from space?

Anyway, here’s a Russian poster for the movie featuring that dragon I mentioned.

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1955) 

Kenji Mizoguchi didn’t do many color films. Princess Yan Kwei-Fei is one of the few, released a few years before he died, and pretty much unavailable in North America until Criterion recently put it up on Hulu Plus. The most basic explanation for its until-now obscurity is that it’s not a particularly good film.

Our “princess” in Princess from the Moon went from being an orphaned space being, adopted by peasants, to a sought after beautiful young woman. The princess in Princess Yang Kewi-Fei goes in the opposite direction: from a kitchen slave to a replacement for the emperors recently deceased wife. She becomes a princess not because she wants to but because everyone else wants her to; she’s essentially a tool in everyone else’s hands. Once she’s pressed to the responsibility of helping the emperor forget his first wife, she actually falls in love with the emperor and he with her. He, like her, feels bound by his place in the world. He’s always told what to do, where to do it, and when; never a moment to himself. She alleviates this pressure in him by returning to her own roots as a commoner. They sneak out and eat delicious food while watching people dance. The idea here is to get as far away from the official realm of politics, for only outside that realm can one really breath. 

Up until this point, Princess Yang Kwei-Fei is a touching romance told by a master director. Once they are firmly in love with one anther, Mizoguchi drops the ball completely. The narrative takes a giant leap forward to a point where all of the princess’ family members, who have profited off her ascension to position and power, are apparently acting greedily and putting the entire nation of China on the brink of ruin.

The people are upset, they want the princess and her family removed; the emperor and princess don’t want to part, blah blah blah. The rest of the film is melodramatic syrup compared to the gentle grave of the first half. One suspects that Mizoguchi chose the direction he did due to his penchant for sacrificial love stories, but in this case he doesn’t built up well enough to the transition. The film might have been a beautiful exploration of what it means inhabit a particular position in the world and to also be constantly working against and outside of that position in order to feel free. It could have explored the boundaries of professional love (because this is the best way to describe them at first), and it also could have touched on the ways in which a sudden rise to power can change a person. Mizoguchi doesn’t maximize his potential here; instead he falls back on familiar conventions for him.

Princess Yang Kwei-Fei is worth watching for the first half alone, and just to see what Mizoguchi does with color. The film is garishly pink at times, but otherwise he seems to have a good handle on how to balance his color schemes for great effect.

Autobiography of a Princess (Dir. James Ivory, 1975) 

This early Merchant-Ivory production is a slight, 58 minute movie that depicts an Indian princess in her mid, late-30’s (perhaps) as she reminisces with her old English tutor over 8mm films. The film’s title is a little deceptive, because we never learn much about this princess. Instead, we learn about the many people around her and the cultural shifts that she saw during her lifetime as the Indian Royalty became dispossessed, relatively speaking.

We are given the impression that this princess, like the one in Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, floats through her life, carried on the tides of a national history and guided by the hands of so many others. The people around her don’t always see her as a person so much as a public figure, and she’s willing to play along to a certain extent. It’s not exactly princess-ship as imprisonment, but it’s close; there’s no self-pity from this princess. Unlike the nation around her, this princess romanticizes the royalty; she wants to preserve its culture for posterity’s sake and she bemoans the fact that the media does little but slander her class. It’s a classic “end of an era” lament, but it’s sober, too, because the aged tutor isn’t so keen on India as he used to be. He see it now as a mysterious place that he can never understand. He harbors few illusions about the Royalty class. He’s returned to Britain, and plans to stay there.

James Ivory (as director) and Ismail Merchant (as producer) forged an entire career in film exploring the relationship between India and Great Britain. Here their concerns seem to be laid out in miniature, pointing the way for the rich body of work that would follow.

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