Criterion Sunday 386: 山椒大夫 Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954)

The Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi certainly was fond of a heartbreaking story of a family torn apart, often focusing on women who are placed under incredible strain, and that’s certainly the case here. Kinuyo Tanaka plays a mother whose husband is exiled and who finds herself forcibly separated from her children as she journeys to him. She is sent to work as a prostitute, while they grow up as slaves to the bailiff of the film’s title, and it is them that the film focuses on for much of its running time. Generically, it’s melodrama of the highest order, but of course Mizoguchi is hardly a sloppy director and there’s scarcely a shot or a moment that doesn’t build on the desperation of the situation, with a grace and beauty to the framings that’s at odds with the turmoil within the characters. This feels like the kind of film you have to live with for a while to get the most from, for while it has its undoubted bleakness, there’s a formal quality to the expression of sorrow that makes it almost reconstitutive. I really can’t place my finger on it, but I’ll want to see it again on the big screen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Fuji Yahiro 八尋不二 and Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 (based on the short story by Mori Ogai 森鴎外); Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Yoshiaki Hanayagi 花柳喜章, Kyoko Kagawa 香川京子, Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代, Eitaro Shindo 進藤英太郎; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 January 2021 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, May 2000).