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"WITHOUT mercy a man is like a beast... All men are created equal... Everyone is entitled to happiness." There is the progress of Kenji Mizoguchi's great tragedy Sansho Day?. The film perfectly embodies the themes of his career: the struggles of the oppressed, the enslavement of women. But it goes beyond these themes to describe the desolation of a family torn apart.
In Japan's feudal age, a defenseless noblewoman and her family are seized by bandits. She is sold for a whore. Her children become slaves of the ruthless Sansho, fief-holder to one of Japan's most powerful nobles. By linking the exploitation of the weak to the separation of a family, the film achieves a simple unity of immense power. The children's motivation to escape and find their mother is at the same time a political motivation. When the boy Zushio decides to become Sansho's man, his sister Anju taxes him not only for his cruelty to his fellow-slaves but for rejecting the teachings of his father. Hearing his mother's voice calling in the forest convinces him to escape. Becoming governor of the province, he returns to free Sansho's slaves-and his sister. Discovering her death, he resigns his post, which has lost its meaning, and goes to find his mother.
Though Zushio's acts work toward freedom, they are motivated by his desire for reunification, for happiness. This motivation gains depth from its lack of embroidering. Its simplicity allows Mizoguchi to shoot each situation directly, without stylization. Simple actions are described in their physical, social, and personal dimension at once.
Mizoguchi's use of deep-focus and high-angle lets him shoot every situation economically and directly. When one slave is to be branded on the forehead, the camera looks down on his head beside the roaring fire where the iron lies. Sansho walks up; the camera tracks out, framing him and a few behind him. He grasps the iron and presses it to the man's temples. We only need hear his scream, for the first image established the man's plight indelibly. And by avoiding a sensational treatment, by refusing to show the man's head being branded. Mizoguchi achieves a drama of superior continuity and emotional force. He feeds the horror of the branding into the flow of the film, the continuously maintained imprisonment and oppression of the slaves, instead of interrupting that situation for one man's pain. Tracking away from the man to Sansho, he transfers our anger from the act to the man responsible for the oppression of all.
His tracking shots allow Mizoguchi at once to shoot every situation with unbelievable guts and to keep his film flowing onward. They combine anguish and beauty, human motion and a fixed setting. In the beginning they glide with the noblewoman and her children through a forest, playing with the light and shade of the passing trees. When the bandits take her from them, fast tracks of incredible violence following them running along the shore after the women are cut against shots of her being carried off in a boat. In every track characters and setting, foreground and background, seem to be moving in the same direction, but along parallel lines so that they will never meet. One keeps wishing that their direction would be broken, that a character would penetrate into depth and bring everything back together.
IN THIS we see freedom, motion, insufficient. What we demand is happiness, the reunification of people with people, or people with settings which are separated in depth. When Zushio returns to Sansho's, he rides into the compound and walks to and from Sansho's house through a crowd of slaves. Mizoguchi tracks in and out with him in high-angle; his triumph over his former enslavement is immense. But he hears that his sister is dead, and suddenly the other position in depth he has struggled to attain becomes empty.
Resigning his governorship, he goes to find his mother. By a fishing hut on the shore of an island he hears the song she made up about him and Anju. Mizoguchi for the first time cranes up away from him and, keeping him in frame on one side of the house, reveals his blind mother on the hillside or the other side. Having set up that other-being-in-depth that is Zushio's goal, he cuts into close shot of her. Zushio approaches her, speaks to her; she refuses to believe it is he and, tearing herself away, hobbles around to the front of the house as Mizoguchi tracks across, paralleling her motion while holding away from her. Zushio follows her and, standing before the hut's open doorway, convinces her inside of his identity. She comes back out and they embrace.
Reunification, intergration of beings separated in depth, has finally been achieved. But she immediately breaks away and begins to grope around for Anju. He tells her, "We're all alone now, mother," as they sit in the same plane-in-depth. Mizoguchi cuts to a longer high-angle of the two isolated before the hut, and pans across as he cranes up and away from them. The camera holds on two silhouetted rock cliffs, symmetrical in the frame and flat on a single plane. Unified in depth, they are isolated by the surrounding white sky. Depth has been penetrated and overcome, but the final image is barren. Reunification has been achieved, but it is made desolate by the death of the rest of the family.
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