Despite being a Japanese movie it is a Chinese story, telling the Real Life history of 8th century imperial consort Yang Kwei-Fei. Emperor Xuan Zong of the Tang Dynasty is a widower. He has for some time been deep in mourning for his lost wife, much to the distress of the imperial court, which can't get him to focus on running the country.
The ambitious Yang family is trying to pair the emperor up with a woman as a means of inserting themselves in the court. Family patriarch Yang Guozhong has tossed three sisters from another branch of the Yang clan at Emperor Xuan Zong to no avail. General An Lushan, an ally of the Yang family, notices a fourth sister, Yuahan, born of a different mother. Yuahan (Machiko Kyo) has been left to labor in the Yang kitchens as a servant girl, but An observes both her arresting beauty and her resemblance to the late empress.
Yuahan is sent to the palace. It works, as the emperor falls hopelessly in love with the kind, gentle, selfless Yuahan. He gives her the honorific title of Kwei-Fei, and she becomes his consort. The Yang family is raised in status, with Guozhong becoming chancellor, and An Lushan getting a promotion. Unfortunately, while Kwei-Fei is a devoted servant of the emperor, her relations exploit their power, imposing oppressively high taxes, making themselves hated among the people. Also, An Lushan isn't satisfied with promotion, and wants to become an imperial minister himself. All the political scheming and rivalries threaten to destroy the happiness of the emperor and Kwei-Fei.
One of only two color films made by Mizoguchi before his death from leukemia in 1956.
- All for Nothing: The mutinous mob of soldiers outside the palace force Xuan Zong to hand over Kwei-Fei so they can execute her. And it doesn't even save his throne in the end, as the emperor is later overthrown by his son.
- Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: After first being enchanted by the lovely Yuahan, the emperor orders the "lotus bath" for her before she's brought back into his presence. It's not the typical villainous example—she is a harem girl, after all—but it plays out in the same way as Fanservice.
- Bathtub Scene: Or rather the Japanese equivalent, "Furo Scene", in which Yuahan is given a fancy bath before being returned to the presence of the emperor.
- Dirty Coward: Yang Guzhong, who is only too eager to hand over his own cousin to a bloodthirsty mob in order to save his own neck. He's killed by one of the other courtiers.
- Downer Ending: Kwei-Fei willingly hands herself over, and is executed by the soldiers, in order to spare her husband's life.
- Face Death with Dignity: Kwei-Fei, going to her execution calmly and with dignity.
- Framing Device: Begins and ends with Emperor Xuan Zong, having been pushed aside by his son and forced into retirement, wistfully remembering his lost love Kwei-Fei from long ago.
- Inner Monologue: The Framing Device has the emperor remembering his lost consort.
- King Incognito: Xuan Zong is attracted by Yuahan's beauty, but they really bond when she sneaks him out of the palace and into the lantern festival, a big carnival going on in town. They walk around, they have snacks, she dances for the crowd while he plays the lute, none of the onlookers aware the emperor is in their midst. At one point they have to duck into an alley to avoid being spotted by people from the court.
- The Lost Lenore: As the film opens the emperor is too distracted to govern, gazing distractedly at a portrait of his wife. At the end he's doing the same with Kwei-Fei, gazing mournfully at her statue.
- The Mutiny: The soldiers supposedly loyal to the emperor mutiny and massacre the Yangs. Then, while professing loyalty to Xuan Zong, they demand he hand over his wife so they can execute her.
- Rags to Royalty: Yuahan rises from servant girl in the kitchen of her richer Yang relations, to queen consort to the emperor. It ends badly, however.
- Tempting Fate: "Everything will go well," says An confidently after settling on Yuahan as the latest offering to the emperor. It doesn't.
- Together in Death: The return to the Framing Device at the end of the movie has the former Emperor Xuan Zong collapsing in front of a statue of his late wife. But his Inner Monologue doesn't end, and his voice is joined by the voice of Kwei-Fei. It becomes clear that the emperor has died and joined his wife in the afterlife. Their voices laugh with joy as they're reunited.
- Too Important to Walk: Mrs. Yang is carried on a litter. This is to underscore how arrogant the Yangs are. Mrs. Yang and her litter bearers are attacked by an angry mob.
- Toplessness from the Back: Yuahan has her bare back to the audience after she rises from the lotus bath, before she's presented to the emperor. This was as risque as Japanese films got in the 1950s.
- Translation Convention: A Chinese story with Chinese characters, presented in Japanese.