Teinosuke Kinugasa is known outside Japan for two of his films. His Gate of Hell, an early color film from Japan, won the honorary Academy Award equivalent to the modern Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1954. He's probably best known now for a film made much earlier: the silent psychological horror film A Page of Madness from 1926 that Kinugasa himself rediscovered and restored in the 1970s. It could fairly be called the Japanese Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, not for aping German Expressionism in its set design or camerawork but for its escalating anxiety about the sanity of its point-of-view character. Kinugasa's much less widely known Yoso starts out as if it's going to be a horror film, but ends up a tragic romance apparently premised on the question: What if Rasputin was a good guy in medieval Japan?
Yoso's Rasputin is Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa), a monk who after years of solitude and repeated transcription of Buddhist treatises has acquired supernatural powers. His first experiments appear malevolent: with a twist of his string of prayer beads he causes a mouse's skeleton (or is the effect supposed to represent its soul?) to leave its body, and then makes a snake curl up and wither. He's now ready to rejoin the world of men and quickly makes an impression by healing a thief apparently killed by guards. A man with his powers might be just the thing for an ailing Empress (Yukiko Fuji), and indeed, just as Rasputin supposedly could relieve the Tsarevich's hemophilia, so Dokyo can ease the frail ruler's oppressive chest pains. The monks of the palace think they should get some of the credit because of their constant prayers, and that the state should continue its ambitious temple building program.
Dokyo quickly realizes that the Empress is surrounded by a bunch of grafters both spiritual and secular who are bankrupting the state treasury with their building programs and subsidized prayers, not to mention their proposed public celebrations of the Empress's recovery. When he uses his new influence with the monarch to challenge their policies and demand reforms, the regime (led by Prime Minister Tomasaburo Wakayama) decides to eliminate him, but running him through with a sword has no effect thanks to his spiritual power. His rise to power appears inexorable as the Empress entrusts him with implementing a "New Deal" -- or so the translator calls it -- aimed at alleviating poverty. Only the Empress's own diplomatic sense of restraint keeps him from taking more radical action against the political hacks at court.
With Dokyo -- or Dokjo, as the Empress affectionately renames him -- invincible if not immortal, there's nothing the politicians can do to stop him. Luckily for them, Dokjo authors his own undoing. As his carnal attraction to the Empress and his temporal political ambitions grow stronger, his spiritual power dwindles until he is no longer able to ease the ruler's chest pains. Ironically, she's more a model of serenity at this point than he is. As he grows desperate to save her, she urges him to let her go, explaining that she can die happy after he gave her happiness. It's not in the cards for Dokjo to die happy, however, as his enemies, sensing weakness, close in for the genuine kill....
Yoso isn't particularly flashy, but it's effectively moody thanks to Kinugasa and his chief collaborators, cinematographer Hiroshi Imai and composer Akira Ifukube, who adds thunderously ominous piano notes to an unmistakably characteristic score. As Dokyo, Raizo Ichikawa makes a great, almost Gothic antihero, so grimly righteous, until he gives in to temptation, that you can hardly blame people, whatever their reasons, for thinking him a villain. What makes Yoso work as a tragedy is that it isn't until you finally feel pretty certain that Dokyo is a good guy without ulterior motives that his plans start to fall apart. I suppose it may be a particularly Buddhist sort of tragedy that dooms the hero for wanting so badly to help the nation and its ruler, but whatever the spiritual or philosophical rationale, it's one of the most successful cinematic tragedies I've seen in some time.