(Sansho Dayu)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Japan. 1954.

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If there is one film which can be described as “Shakespearean”, it is surely Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 epic Sansho Dayu, known in English as Sansho the Bailiff.  This is one of the string of masterpieces created by Mizoguchi in the astonishingly creative last 5 years of his life, of which the best-known is Ugetsu Monogatari (1953). 

Based on a novel derived from an 11th century Japanese legend, Sansho Dayu’s theme is to show how civilisation and morality can arise out of barbarism.  The central character, Zushio, experiences as a boy his father’s banishment and his mother being kidnapped and sold into prostitution, while he and his sister are sold into slavery under the cruel despotism of Sansho.  So corrupted does Zushio become by this experience that he willingly brands an old man for a misdemeanour, suffering from pangs of conscience afterwards.  The branding takes place just off-screen, but one instinctively wants to cover one’s eyes: an example of how not showing violence is often more effective than showing it (see the axe-murder in Bresson’s L’Argent for another classic instance).

Having escaped after many years, Zushio eventually becomes governor of the province and decrees the freeing of the slaves, discovering in the process that both his father and his sister are dead.  In the film’s last great scene he is reunited with his mother, now broken and blind.

This noble story of redemption, and of good coming from evil, is transformed by Mizoguchi into a quite perfect work of cinematic art, aided by magnificent acting and cinematography.  The mother is played by Kinuyo Tanaka, generally regarded as the finest Japanese screen actress ever, oozing a fragile vulnerability through every pore and evoking heart-rending sympathy for the plight of feudal women (Mizoguchi was a passionate feminist, as is evident in all his well-known films).  The adult Zushio is played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi and his sister Anju by Kyoko Kagawa, familiar from other Japanese films of the 1950s such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story.  The stunning camerawork is by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Kurosawa’s Rashomon; the many scenes of nature, particularly of trees and water, have the texture of great paintings. 

Mizoguchi was the master of the long-shot and the extended take, which are as evident in this film as in his others.  The camera generally keeps a respectful distance from the action, a distancing effect which, as with other great directors from the Far East such as Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, encourages in the viewer something of a contemplative attitude without becoming too emotionally involved, via close-ups, with individual characters.  Unlike his compatriot Ozu, however, his camera frequently moves to accommodate the action.  This can be illustrated in Sansho Dayu by the aforementioned final scene, for some critics the finest and most moving in all cinema. (To quote Gilbert Adair’s book Flickers: “Sansho Dayu is one of those films for whose sake the cinema exists - just as it perhaps exists for the sake of its own last scene”).  The camera tracks Zushio, in extremely long shot, as he makes his way along the beach from the old seaweed-gatherer to where he believes his mother to be now living in destitution.  After the ecstatic reunion the camera slowly returns, without Zushio, to come to rest on the seaweed-gatherer again.  Individuals experience life-changing events, while the rest of the world carries on as usual.

The veteran critic Robin Wood, a great admirer of Mizoguchi’s late masterpieces, nevertheless claims that the director has replaced the passionate commitment to social action of some of his earlier films with a Buddhist resignation, a passive acceptance of suffering.  This may be true of The Life of Oharu (1952), Mizoguchi’s breakthrough film in the West, but in Sansho Dayu Zushio goes to great lengths to free the slaves and overthrow Sansho’s tyranny. There is an element of resignation as well, but this is simply a recognition that life contains much suffering which cannot be eliminated by social or political action. Another leading critic, Noel Burch, has long argued that Mizoguchi’s best films are those of the 1930s, and that his 1950s films are a disappointment by being deliberately geared to appeal to Western audiences.   Apart from the magisterial Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) I am not sufficiently familiar with his earlier films to judge.

To finish on a slightly unusual note: the film’s title. The character of Zushio, whether as man or boy, is present virtually throughout the whole film.  Sansho is actually a relatively minor character, being present for perhaps 10 per cent of the film. So why is Sansho the titular character?  It would be rather like Orson Welles naming his first film Citizen Geddys, after the minor character who defeats Kane in an election. A minor quibble, however, about a supreme cinematic masterpiece.

Alan Pavelin

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