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  • A
  • Drama
  • 1954
  • 125 mins

Sansho Dayu

Sansho Dayu

Synopsis

Kenji Mizoguchi's third Silver Lion winner in as many years uses a popular Japanese myth to address the problem of evil and the conflict between genes and environment

About

From 1922 until his death in 1956, Kenji Mizoguchi made more than 85 films, but although many of these are now forever lost or destroyed, he was, along with Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, one of the most admired Japanese directors of his generation.

He did not gain recognition in the West until 1952, when his Saikaku Ichidai Onna (or The Life Of O-Haru), featuring Kinuyo Tanaka as an ill-fated geisha, was selected for the Venice Film Festival, winning the Silver Lion. Mizoguchi would win the same award for Ugetsu Monogotari (1953), and then his international reputation was cemented with Sanshô Dayû (1954), again starring Kinuyo Tanaka as a tragic geisha, and earning the director his third Silver Lion in as many years.

We first meet 13-year-old Zushiô (Kato) and his eight-year-old sister Anju (Enami) traveling with their mother Tamaki (Tanaka) and a nursemaid (Naniwa) to find their long-lost father (Shimizu) - a one-time governor who was sent into exile six years earlier for defending the interests of his peasant population. Long before his family can reach him, however, they are kidnapped by slave-traders. Tamaki is sold off to a brothel on Sado Island, while the two children are kept on the mainland to serve as labourers on an estate managed by the brutal steward Sanshô (Shindo).

Ten years later, when Zushio (now played by Hanayagi) has all but given himself over to his new master's cruel ways, he's pulled back from the brink by a reminder of his mother. Helped by Anju (now played by Kagawa), the young man escapes and heads for the capital, hoping to reclaim his father's mantle, to right some wrongs, and to reunite his family after so long apart.

Based on Ogai Mori's classic 1915 version of a popular Japanese folk tale, Sanshô Dayû tells the story of an eleventh century family both torn asunder and held together by their unfashionably compassionate principles, in "an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings".

Yet even though the film is set almost a millennium before the time it was made, as a boy Mizoguchi had himself seen one of his sisters sold off as a geisha, while his other sister and his mother were terribly mistreated by his father; more recently the director had witnessed his entire nation both perpetrating and suffering all manner of inhuman atrocities during the course of the Pacific War.

So, while Sanshô Dayû may be a period picture set in the distant past, its concern with moral choice and forbearance in the face of disaster have an enduring, universal quality that would have resonated strongly with the director and his immediate audience. That the same remains true even for contemporary Western audiences is testimony to Mizoguchi's immense power as a filmmaker.

As the story of a family's descent and eventual resuscitation, the film is organised around a series of well-balanced symmetries. If Zushiô and his family are betrayed by a selfish priestess, then he will later be protected by courageous clergyman. If Zushiô's father is a paragon of self-sacrificing mercy, then Sansho is his exact opposite. If Zushiô, at least for a time, forgets his father's teachings and instead models himself on Sanshô, then conversely Sanshô's own son Taro (Kôno) turns away from his father's harsh ways to live a life of pious devotion. And if the film begins with Zushiô's righteous father in exile, it will end with the bestial Sanshô arrested and relegated abroad.

By so carefully offsetting one character's fate against another's, Mizoguchi suggests a universe which, though at times turbulent, ultimately conforms to a harmonious cycle of ebb and flow - in a film that begins with a painting of waves beating against a shore, that ends with a report of a tsunami's destructive force, and whose most crucial scenes all unfold in the spaces where land and water meet.

Buffeted by the tides of time, the same person can be reduced to a slave, or ascend to a governorship - but in the end Zushiô's only guiding principle is the legacy of compassion symbolised by the statuette of Kwannon, Goddess of Mercy, that he has inherited from his father. That alone is what fixes his identity, allows others to recognise him, and drives him forward into the future.

Sanshô Dayû is an exceptional film, telling its complicated story in simple images, and creating order from the worst kind of moral chaos. It is involving from beginning to end, depicts great human cruelty without ever itself being cruel, and its final recognition scene could draw tears from a stone.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Ken Mitsuda, Akitake Kôno, Eitaro Shindo, Kazukimi Okuni, Chieko Naniwa, Keiko Enami, Masahiko Kato, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kinuyo Tanaka, Masao Shimizu
  • Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Screen Writer: Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda
  • Writer (Book): Ogai Mori
  • Producer: Masaichi Nagata
  • Photographer: Kazuo Miyagawa
  • Composer: Kanahichi Odera, Tamekichi Mochizuki, Fumio Hayasaka

In a nutshell

In Mizoguchi's classic retelling of "one of the world's great folktales, full of grief," balanced against the waves of misery there is also hope to tide humanity over.

by Anton Bitel

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