When most think of the “golden age” of Japanese cinema, the knee jerk reaction is to cite films by Kurosawa or Ozu (not to mention Ishiro Honda’s Gojira), leaving the works of Kenji Mizoguchi sadly ignored or unknown by a large chunk of Japanese cinema fans. Revered in the 1950s, Mizoguchi was introduced to the international stage after gaining an award at the Venice Film Festival. Although his ghost story, Ugetsu, is perhaps the most memorable of his films, his most poignant and masterfully crafted is Sansho Dayu(山椒大夫), or Sansho the Bailif.
A story of a brother and sister (Zushio and Anju) born into prosperity, their father is the embodiment of nobility and teaches them the true importance of ethics, mercy and humanity. To test these fundamentals, Mizoguchi takes us through a heart wrenching journey, which starts with the exile of the children’s father and their journey, along with their mother, to try and reunite the family.
It isn’t too long however before the family face another ordeal; fooled by a con artist in the guise of a priest, their mother is sold to prostitution, whilst the children are dragged away to a large estate, where they are bought as slaves. Head of this fiefdom is a loathsome old man, Sansho, who has a community of slaves working for him. He rules them with brutality and torment, those that try to escape are branded, those that are ill are dragged into the woods and left to die, those that work hard and keep their head down, may just survive.
Sansho’s son however is far more gentle, Taro is also just a child, so he hears of Zushio’s and Anju’s story and has nothing but sympathy for them. He knows how drastic his father’s actions can be however, so he convinces the two to wait a few years, to mature and grow in strength before they plan their escape. Acquiescing to a life of slavery, the siblings settle down to their new environment, and a void opens up between them.
As they grow into young adults, Anju still holds the teachings of her father dear to her heart, still believing in humanity even after the endless troubles she has suffered. Her brother however is the polar opposite, having risen in the ranks of the slave camp, he punishes those that try to escape and is quick to lose his temper and lash out with a crack of his whip. Believing that strength is his only chance of survival, Zushio has become a twisted reflection of his former self.
As the two grow apart apart, their only supporter, Taro, leaves the estate to pursue a life as a priest. Fate, however, draws them back together, as a new child is brought into the camp as a slave; she sings a melancholy song about two missing noble children and their mother who waits in torment. Believing the song is about them, and that it is proof that their mother is still alive, Anju begs Zushio to escape with her so they can finally reunite with their parents. Zushio, having orders to drag and abandon an elderly lady out into the wilderness, he is followed by Anju and is forced to face his sister and the man he has become.
A story that pits survival against sacrifice, personal gains against selfless deeds, it may shock some just how far the narrative will go to push this point across. The “happy” ending is anything but, and although a beautiful movie, you will struggle to leave the film without a tear in your eye and the prospect of a second viewing may seem like too much of an ordeal to bear.