AFED #109: Sanshō Dayũ [Sansho the Bailiff] (Japan, 1954); Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

Few national cinemas can boast the wealth of directing talent that Japan possessed between the forties and sixties. Yasujirō Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Masaki Kobayashi were all active during this golden age, producing some of the classics of world cinema.

Mizoguchi, director of Sanshō Dayũ, is still something of a grey area for me as I've thus far only watched this and (his own favourite work) The Life of Oharu (1952). It shares with the theme of all fall from status, yet while Oharu's is partly of her own doing for the hapless characters of Sanshō Dayũ their fortunes are constantly governed by the fickle hand of fate.

Taking place - like so many Japanese films of this vintage - during the feudal era, the story begins with the exiling of a virtuous governor to a far-off province. When his wife and children attempt to make the long journey to visit him they are tricked and find themselves sold into prostitution and slavery. The children, Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) and Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) fall into the ownership of the eponymous Sansho, a vindictive landowner, and treated with appalling hardship and brutality.

Years pass and Zushio becomes hardened by the experience while his sister Anju still recalls their father's teachings. When opportunity deals them the opportunity to escape Sansho's compound Anju convinces Zushio to make the journey in search of their mother and come back to rescue her. Thereafter the story focuses on Zushio as remarkable series of events that allow him to turn the tables on Sansho and liberate his slaves. It comes too late to save Zushio's father and sister but in an overwrought finale he is reunited with his mother, now blind and frail.

Strangely enough there are parallels with Ben Hur, which I've watched recently (this entry being written several days after the event, I'm afraid). Both revolve around a son seeking to correct wrongs committed against his family and trying to reconcile the desire for revenge with the more tolerant teachings of his 'father'. Yet while in the Hollywood film success is achieved through superhuman resolve, in Mizoguchi's world struggle is not always rewarded with the desired results and luck, good and bad, always has a part to play.

Confucian philosophy lies at the heart of this talr, in particular the theme of honouring one's parents. Ultimately Zushio achieves a victory of sorts by rediscovering and applying those principles, albeit agonisingly too late. Some of the film's power may have been lost by time; occasionally scenes that might have seemed naturalistic in the fifties now come across as stiled. Yet Sanshō Dayũ still packs a punch.


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