What’s it about?
One of the most acclaimed, indeed revered, films from the late career of Japanese auteur Kenji Mizoguchi, Sansho Dayu tells the story of the family – wife, 13 year old son and 8 year old daughter – of an exiled governor who, when travelling to be reunited with him, are kidnapped by slave traders. The mother is separated from her children and forced to become a prostitute, while the children are sold into slavery, working for the powerful Sansho (Eitarô Shindô) as part of his large group of slaves. The film’s second act picks up when the children have grown up. Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) has become mercenary, disciplining the other slaves cruelly when it will make his life easier, while his 18 year old sister, Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), wants nothing more than to escape with her brother so that their family can be reunited.
Mizoguchi was clearly a master. The composition of shots is aesthetically beautiful, while also communicating story and emotion just as much as the dialogue does. The film has a great sense of place and space, with strong contrast drawn between the relatively opulent house that Sansho lives in and the difficult, cramped, conditions the slaves have, and Mizoguchi’s use of location gives us some truly stunning vistas. Certain images have really stuck with me since watching the film, most notably a shot of Anju walking into a river, which we first see through branches hanging down at the water’s edge, before cutting closer. As well as being stunning images in their own right these shots are incredibly sad and moving.
The performances are uniformly excellent, from the expressive children who play Zushio and Anju in the film’s first forty minutes, to Kazukimi Okuni, as a slightly older slave who takes Anju under her wing, through to a pair of heartbreaking leading performances from Kagawa and Hanayagi. Yoshiaki Hanayagi has most of the screen time (Sansho, despite his name being the film’s title and a powerful and forceful performance from Eitarô Shindô is a largely peripheral presence), and his is easily the character with the most extreme arc, going from slave to governor, from cruel to pathetic, to driven, and convincing every step of the way. Kyoko Kagawa has a much more limited presence in the film, but the relationship between Anju and her brother is so well drawn and so moving that her presence hangs effectively over the film. Mizoguchi finds an ending that is at once beautiful and devastating, and ties it into the rest of the film with a device which is tremendously effective in its simplicity.
The film, while packing a lot of story into its two hours, moves at a relatively stately pace, thanks to Mizoguchi’s restrained camerawork. Working mostly in mid-shot, he keeps a slow cutting rhythm, and is most often content to let his actors and his images, rather than his camera, move things forward.
How’s the picture and sound?
As you would expect from Masters of Cinema, Sansho Dayu looks fantastic. Print damage is almost non-existent and the shades of grey in the black and white visuals are faithfully reproduced. What really impresses with this transfer is the depth in the image; Mizoguchi’s shots of the Japanese landscape seem to stretch into forever (especially when Zuchio stands on top of a hill), again giving the lie to the faddy idea that 3D is how you give visual depth to movies. I don’t have a surround system, but I would be stunned if that’s any kind of loss here; largely dialogue driven and often rather quiet, Sansho Dayu sounds fine.
Gion Bayashi (see below for a short review), the film that Mizoguchi made immediately before Sansho Dayu, is included as an extra. To begin with it seems as though this transfer will be problematic, as it opens with a heavily damaged credit sequence. Print damage can be glimpsed in the rest of the film (largely in dissolves, which begin and end most scenes), and the image is generally a bit softer, but overall Gion Bayashi also boasts solid detail and contrast and is a pleasure to watch, even if it lacks the HD pop that Sansho Dayu has.
Both films are given optional subtitles which seem well translated, and are both readable and well placed on the image so as not to interfere with the visuals. On the whole this is an exemplary disc.
A whole extra feature film is included as a bonus. Gion Bayashi is a (then) contemporary set story of a young woman who becomes a geisha, and her struggle to avoid prostituting herself, and to, along with the woman who trained her, keep working despite a powerful madam’s wishes. Even with just these two films I can begin to see that Mizoguchi has some particular interests in his cinema; he seems to talk about and sympathise with the exploited and the poor, as well as having a clear interest in the way that Japanese society functions, and in critiquing many aspects of the way it functions (or functioned).
Where Sansho Dayu occasionally feels fanciful, Gion Bayashi seems much more of a slice of life, and the committed and down to earth performances of leads Ayako Wakao and Michiyo Kogure really give it that ring of truth that makes the film so compelling and moving. Again, scenes and takes tend to be long, and this works well because of both Mizoguchi’s masterful composition and his actors top notch performances. I found Gion Bayashi to be essentially on a par with Sansho Dayu.
Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns also provides to-camera pieces on each of the films. In the Sansho Dayu menu there is a ten minute piece, and under the Gion Bayashi menu one that runs 28 minutes. Both are well worth watching as Rayns contextualises the films, the times and Mizoguchi’s career, without sounding as if he’s reading from a script. He’s an engaging speaker and if you like the films these pieces are a great next step.
There is also a booklet, but sadly I did not have a copy for review, but if it’s up to the usual Masters of Cinema standard then it should make fascinating reading. This is a dual format edition, so as well as getting all this content on one Blu Ray you get it on two DVDs.
Sansho Dayu is a beautifully photographed and acted film that is sure to reveal more layers on rewatches, and to me it seems like an ideal introduction to the work of Kenji Mizoguchi. Masters of Cinema have curated a great Blu Ray release, with a strong image and an equally excellent film included among a quality package of extras. This release is highly recommended.
Extra Features Rating:
When’s it out?
Sansho Dayu is available on dual format now