Kenji Mizoguchi on Blu-ray: Sansho Dayu (1954) review
Sansho is but one man but, as Mizoguchi’s masterful drama unfurls with devastating clarity, it’s obvious that there will always be a Sansho.
(Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)
As anybody who pays attention to the Oscars will know, chronicles of hardship are the stock-in-trade of cinema. Something about the fall and rise structure involved in suffering, the perfect parabola of the narrative arc involved in overcoming adversity, makes it attractive to ambitious directors. But by heck it’s hard to get right. So many times, these films lack the toughness of their conviction to become soft-focus, mawkish melodramas. At other times, they prove too tough, a manipulative face-first shove into barbarity.
And then there’s Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho Dayu, which nails the genre so well it makes all other efforts look doubly feeble. His tale of a ruling class family sold into slavery, on paper, hits every cliché going but Mizoguchi gazes so deeply into his story that it becomes an archetype, raw and elemental.
It’s a harsh film (just when you think slave-owner Sansho’s method of branding dissenters on the forehead is as bad as it gets, we’re introducing to another slaveowner who offers a far more chilling punishment) but it’s never gratuitous, the violence transformed into a visual symbol of the wider malaise. And narrative twists that might seem convenient if not downright schematic feel like moments of Buddhist circularity, characters propelled by fate as much as Mizoguchi’s unstoppable, breath-taking camera movements.
Why is it named after Sansho? He’s not the main character, but he’s the hinge on which the narrative bends. He’s an all-too plausible villain – it’d be easy to make him cruel for cruelty’s sake, but he’s very much a product of his society, indulged in his behaviour because he brings in cash (and no small amount of obsequious arse-licking) to his boss. Dayu is often translated as ‘bailiff’ or, in this disc’s subtitles, ‘steward.’ Either way, Sansho is a servant of the system, and it’s the system that Mizoguchi is interested in.
With devastating, clear-eyed vision, the director shows a hero who is made as flawed and complex as his enemies by the sheer weight of hardship in his world. Taught by his father that, “without mercy, man is a beast; be hard on yourself but merciful to others,” Zuchio tries to follow that code… but ten years of Sansho’s rule makes mercy look less of a luxury than an outright fantasy. Only patience, luck and the unwavering faith of sister can bring Zuchio to his senses and even then, any sense of triumphalism is neutered by Mizoguchi’s God’s eye view. We’re allowed to witness the tragic fallout of the story even as Zuchio optimistically conducts his quest to overturn a decade of injustice, creating an emotional timebomb that detonates as the film reaches its painful end.
You have to wonder how much of Japan’s recent history fed into Mizoguchi’s vision of a feudal 11th century unfettered by such touchy-feely notions as freedom, courtesy or – yes – mercy. The irony of an opening caption that dares to suggest such cruelty is a thing in the past turns the film into a timeless moral fable, its hope and pessimism so intermingled that it seems scarcely possible this is even part of the same art-form as the disingenuous, button-pushing tragedy-porn of other prestige movies. Everything builds to one of the most devastating happy/sad endings in cinema. Mizoguchi’s camera lingers long enough to let you cry your eyes out but then pans away towards the sea as if to say, “such things have always happened; they always will.” It’s a staggering, humbling moment that few films have matched.