I watched this movie (Sanshô dayû in Nihongo) the other night, one of director Kenji Mizoguchi’s very last. It was made in 1954, and is certainly one of the most beautifully photographed films I’ve ever seen. The opening scenes of a family traveling through the woods reminded me of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring: the same dazzling black and white contrast in the forest, the scintillating surface of water, the mysterious light at sunrise and sunset – it all made me want to live in a world without color for a while. Well, for two hours anyway. There are other similarities with The Virgin Spring, especially regarding revenge and what it really accomplishes, but I won’t give the game of either away by saying too much here. I’ll go along with everyone else who calls it a Great Film, although I won’t go so far as to call it the greatest ever made. Read along with Anthony Lane:
I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.
I’m not so sure the human heart was designed to weather this kind of rodomontade, but the movie is certainly very, very sad.
A govenor runs afoul with his superior and his family is broken up and sold into slavery. As he prepares to leave, he tells his son that mercy is important above all else: “Without mercy, man is not a human being. Be hard on yourself, but merciful to others”. We then watch as his son, Zushiô, loses sight of this and then tries to get it back. Does he? I think it’s more open to question than what I’ve seen in most other responses to the movie, leaving his hope of redemption unresolved. So: maybe not the best movie ever made, but more evidence that the world’s best cinema produced so far is that of Japan, particularly in the years after World War II. As a drunk Faulkner once wrote (or maybe it was one of his characters that was drunk): “Defeat iss good for art; victory, it iss not good.” Or as a drunken Lane might write, whatever you might weather in life, art iss sure to do you in.