Sansho tells the story of a humanistic governor, and how his defiance of the local lord sets a tragic chain of events into motion. The governor is sent into exile, and his wife and two children are left to fend for themselves. Before he leaves, however, he imparts a bit of his wisdom to his young son. “Without mercy, a man is not a human being”. This is advice that will resonate throughout the film.
The lonely young wife eventually decides to go to join her husband, but makes the grave error of trusting a kindly older woman, who betrays them to slave traders. The wife is sold into prostitution, and the children become slaves of Sansho the bailiff. Sansho is a harsh boss. Early on, a runaway is captured and brought back to the compound, and branded with a burning stick. One woman has the tendons in her feet cut when she tries to flee. This level of cruelty is stunning, and the disc’s liner notes make the observation that this may be Mizoguchi’s statement on the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WW2.
A recurring theme throughout Mizoguchi’s career is sensitivity towards his female characters, and it is certainly evident here. It’s the young sister Anju who stays strong during their captivity. The brother Zushio, on the other hand, shows signs of succumbing to the evil around him. Sansho gives him the opportunity to brand a runaway slave, and he obediently does it rather than questioning the order. We wonder if his father’s words of advice even occur to him at that moment.
The film cuts occasionally to the mother, still in grieving for her lost children. There’s a song that she sings, and its plaintive lyrics become a leitmotif for the space that now separates the family.
“My Anju, I yearn for you.”
“My Zushio, I yearn for you.”
This same song becomes the impetus for the escape of the siblings when Anju hears a new slave girl singing it, and realizes that they may now be able to find their mother.
The escape is the axis that the film revolves around, and it invites endless discussion. The children are ordered to take an ailing woman out in to the forest and leave her to die. Anju decides that this is the moment, and tells Zushio to make a run for it, and that she will provide a diversion. By doing this, she is essentially sacrificing her life. Then, at the last moment, she tells Zushio to take the ailing woman with him. This seems strange, because he would certainly move slower carrying the stricken woman than if Anju came with him. It is plain throughout the film that Anju is the stronger of the two, and by making her the martyr, Mizoguchi is paying homage to her courage. She does the tough job because she’s more able to. Her last gift to her brother is to ensure his freedom, which she hopes will result in the rest of the family being restored. With Zushio safely on his way, Anju drowns herself in a scene that is simplistic, yet remarkably beautiful.
Free at last, Zushio manages to be appointed to his father’s old position and takes it upon himself to close down Sansho’s operation, despite having no authority to do so. This tactic seems suicidal at first, but it creates a slave revolt, which topples Sansho. The determined Zushio is now channeling his father’s philosophy, and there’s a marvelous little scene where he again confronts the old man that he branded earlier.
“My sins in branding you can never be erased…”
It’s only now that Zushio learns that Anju is dead, and this makes his final meeting with his mother so poignant. He traces her to a remote beachside village, and led by the sounds of her singing finds her crippled and blind, supporting herself by shooing birds away from the seaweed harvest. She at first believes him to be an hallucination, but gradually comes to the realization that this strange voice does indeed belong to her long-lost son. It’s a gorgeous sequence, because it doesn’t wallow in false sentimentality. This family has been shattered, and although there is a closure of sorts, there is also a sense of immense loss.