Sanshō Dayū (1954)

“I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don’t directly concern them. They’re ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot come true. If you wish to live honestly with your conscience, keep close to the Buddha.”

‘Sanshō Dayū’, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1954, is an historical drama set in Japan in the middle ages. It features a governor of a province who is exiled leaving his wife and children vulnerable. They escape only to be split up, the wife is kidnapped and forced into prostitution, the children sold to an estate as slaves owned by the eponymous steward. It’s a film that takes place over a long period of time and doesn’t offer easy answers. It take a humane, progressive stance both on class and gender but also wrings out every drop of emotion from the audience. Mizoguchi’s skill is in telling intimate stories with a broad canvas. Both of the films I’ve seen of his (see, for example, ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’) have used the landscapes and environment of rural Japan, like Tarkovsky focusing on water in particular. In this film the image of a boat and a lake become signifiers for danger and a change for the worse, but also, in the form of rivers, as a metaphor for the passing of time. Highlights of the film include a strong performance by Kinuyo Tanaka as the abandoned wife Tamaki, whose absence from her children stays with her as an open wound throughout her life. Her ability as an actress makes the resolution, using the repetition of a folk song about the children, is also a staggeringly powerful scene. The real strength of the film, however, is the visual richness and how it balances the emotional depth of the story. Mizoguchi seems to have the ability to pitch these fairy-tale like stories (it is, after all, a Japanese version of ‘Babes in the Wood’) in a way that uses the multi-layered qualities of cinema to its best.

Would I recommend it? Yes – maybe with ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’ to get a completely rounded sense of Mizoguchi’s style and tone.

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