The true hero of the novel is Zushio, the son of an exiled governor. Dad was broken and sent away because he would not squeeze his subjects according to imperial dicate. He teaches his boy that without mercy, man is nothing but a beast. The boy has some beastly years in store for him. Part of the family's punishment is that Dad is separated from Mom, Zushio and sister Anju. Years after the disaster, the remaining family is on the move, with limited posessions and a single loyal servant. They can't find shelter because reports of robbers and slave traders in the vicinity has led the government to forbid anyone, even innkeepers, from sheltering strangers. So our little family has to share the great outdoors with all these theoretical brigands. But they're in luck: a Buddhist nun offers them clandestine shelter for the night, and arranges for boat passage to their next destination. But as it happens, the boatmen are robbers and slave traders. They nab Mom and row off with her, while Zushio and Anju are held on land, eventually to be sold into the caring custody of Sansho the Bailiff. He puts them to hard work immediately, to the annoyance of his conscientious son Taro. The young man offers the kids some encouragement, advising them to endure for now and not to try escaping until they're older and stronger. Then he lights out for the territory.
Time jump: Zushio and Anju are young adults under their slave names of Mutsu-Waka and Shinobu. Anju/Shinobu remains friendly and compassionate, while Zushio/Mutsu is in danger of being brutalized by the need to survive and win Sansho's favor. He's now the bailiff's go-to guy when an elderly runaway needs to be branded on the forehead. This disgusts his sister, but the brother thinks he has no choice. Meanwhile, the new girl in the weaving department, whom Shinobu teaches the ropes of threads, sings a song she learned in her old town. It goes something like this: Anju, my heart calls for you; isn't life torture? Zushio, my heart calls for you; isn't life torture? What a coincidence! But not suprisingly, Shinobu gets the notion that the woman the new girl first heard the song from could be her mother.
Mutsu-Waka (aka Zushio, played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi) does Sansho's dirty work with a branding iron.
Mutsu doesn't buy it, until the day he's told to haul a sick woman into the woods to die. The woman is another friend of Shinobu's, so she tags along to comfort her. As brother and sister gather wood for a little shelter for their friend, Mutsu can swear he hears the "isn't life torture" song in the distance. He resolves to flee the estate and find his mother, but tells sis to stay behind until he can come back for her. She diverts a guard, but it's not long before the alarm sounds signalling Zushio's breakout. Anju figures that Sansho will torture her to find out where Zushio went, and she assumes that she'll break under his attentions. Her way of saving her brother is to walk into a river and drown herself. I told you it was a melodrama.
Anju (Kyoko Kagawa, who's been in films ranging from Tokyo Story to the original Mothra) begins to realize that her brother has no chance for freedom while she's alive.
Sansho's men are soon all over the place, including a Buddhist temple where they're told that no one was allowed to take shelter. This is a little bit of a lie, because Zushio has been sheltered by none other than Taro, Sansho's estranged son who has become a monk. He tells our hero that he had tried to tell officials in Kyoto about Sansho's evil ways, with no result. But he arranges to have his head priest write a letter of introduction for Zushio so he can petition the imperial government for redress. Zushio then makes his way to Kyoto, where he sneaks into a ministerial compound and begs for a minister's attention. He's promptly arrested and his remaining prized possession, a statue of Kwannon the goddess of luck, is taken from him. But the minister, when shown this, recognizes it as a gift his ancestor gave to one of Zushio's ancestors. He consents to meet with the prisoner, informing him that his father died a while back and regretting his ill treatment. As a small way of making up for Zushio's suffering, the minister makes him governor of Tango province. I did say this was a melodrama.
Despite warnings from the minister not to stir up trouble with powerful land owners, the new governor (he gets yet another name, but let's keep things simple) promptly abolishes slavery in Tango, a territory which includes Sansho the Bailiff's balliwick. To Sansho, who doesn't know who Governor so-and-so really is, this is like Lincoln getting elected President, but secession isn't an option for him. Instead, he has his personal goon squad try to suppress all word of the governor's order. If that means throwing signs into the sea, so be it. If it means beating up the governor's men and smashing the signs as if they were so many commandments, so be that, too.
Improbably elevated to power, Zushio pays respect to his father before payback time for Sansho the Bailiff.
For some film critics, Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu are two sticks to beat Akira Kurosawa with. They are "his masters," in David Thomson's words, epitomes of true Japanese cinema as opposed to the somehow-deracinated global idol. They are talked up in a way that reminds me sometimes of parents foisting bland yet nutritious lunches on us with the advice that they're good for you. That may be why I've only ever seen one Ozu movie (though that one, Tokyo Story, is reputed to be his best, and is actually pretty good), while Sansho is only the third Mizoguchi I've seen. Thomson wouldn't approve of my taste in Japanese cinema, with Kurosawa on top and Kenji Fukasaku (no entry in the Biographical Dictionary) second, and Shohei Imamura (a self-conscious anti-Ozu) rising fast. But let me make a longer list of preferred directors and Mizoguchi would be on it.
I don't know if there's anything echt Japanese about it, but Mizoguchi's style is quite different from Kurosawa's. There's something like a three-dimensional quality in Mizoguchi's work. Where Kurosawa's direction sometimes looks like choreography for and within the screen, usually to powerful effect, Mizoguchi's camera seems planted in a world more in the round, where there's stuff that's going on just off-screen that he may slide the camera over to examine, or there's more to see over the horizon, as a crane shot will reveal. There's a strong sense of living space in Mizoguchi's work that reminds me of Max Ophuls, who was also doing definitive work in the 1950s. Mizoguchi also achieves subtler effects from his actors, compared to the barnstorming quality of Toshiro Mifune's work with Kurosawa. I can understand how a certain cinemaesthetic sense would rank Mizoguchi ahead of his more famous compatriot.
But the profundity of works like Sansho can be overstated. This movie is, as I've said, melodramatic, almost in the manner of D. W. Griffith. Anju's sacrifice seems like a stunt that Lillian Gish might pull. I was struggling while watching the film to figure out what seemed so familiar about Zushio's odyssey until it hit me a little later. But a Google search informs me that I'm not the first to see a resemblance between the hero's riches-to-rags-to-riches-to? career path and that of the title character of Ben-Hur. Sansho Dayu, however, is definitely not a Tale of the Christ. The old mother is still singing "isn't life torture?" at the end of the film, and even though she is reunited with her son, nothing in the film really answers her rhetorical yet musical question in the negative. Life really stinks for most people in the Heian period, and for all of Zushio's fantastical ups and downs, you get the sense that Mizoguchi realized it would betray his social consciousness to give that blighted family a full-scale happy ending with fortunes restored and all ills cured. Sansho is a more mature and moderate melodrama than its American counterpart. It has, nonetheless, a positive ending because, despite some temptation, Zushio never really betrayed his father's hopes for him. He remained a good person, even if that meant renouncing power that might have been used for more good. On the other hand, how much do you want to bet that the next governor of Tango province recalled Sansho and restored as many slaves as could be recovered to that estate?
In the end I found Sansho a somewhat overrated movie, though clearly a superior one. But it's overrated in the way Citizen Kane is overrated. Sansho Dayu is a great film with beatiful black-&-white cinematography and location work and excellent performances from an impressive ensemble. It's a film I'd recommend to anyone interested in the global art of the wild world of cinema. But it didn't become my favorite Japanese film, and I don't think subsequent viewings will make that happen, either. It's only a film I like.
Here's a trailer from the Masters of Cinema collection uploaded by Eurekaentertainment. It features the fine score by Fumio Hayasaka.