Several years later the trio is forced to embark on a difficult journey, to the distant province where the ex-Governor now lives. Regrettably they are terribly vulnerable, easy prey for deceivers and bandits. In a sequence of heart-rending tragedy, Tamaki becomes separated from Zushi˘ and Anju. While she is sold into prostitution on Sado Island, they become the slaves of Sansh˘ dayű (Eitar˘ Shind˘). Now they are sub-human, chattels to be used and sold at the whim of Sansh˘. A decade later, Zushi˘ (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Ky˘ko Kagawa) have become inured to their fate; they remember their parents, though more as symbols than people. On the lowest rung of society, survival is always their uppermost concern.
The fundamental barrier encountered by films based in medieval times is one of separation, the lack of reference points for a contemporary audience. To step around this you can weave unambiguous themes into your tale (the commonality of thwarted love maybe) or spice up the enterprise with vigorous action. In Sansh˘ dayű, Kenji Mizoguchi does neither; his direction is stubbornly true to the milieu. Obviously he hopes that by defining characters strongly, making their predicament tangibly unforgiving, the audience will become drawn in despite themselves. In this Mizoguchi is reasonably successful, so directly does Sansh˘ dayű deal with the leading roles and what happens to them. And yet, for all this effort, it's difficult to connect with the film and somehow identify with the plight of Zushi˘ and Anju. Sansh˘ dayű is not badly made though, quite the reverse, it's just that there's a culture gap in the way.
As Sansh˘ dayű is such a close-up, deliberately personal experience, the cast members must act with great subtlety and skill. There's no room for egotistical, showy emotion here; it would, in a moment, destroy the fragile tenderness that Mizoguchi works so hard to construct. It's thus a relief to note that, as the adult orphans, both Hanayagi and Kagawa are excellent. The love and devotion that they feel, the protecting shield, shines out. Despite their bondage, the crushing of hope at every turn, they support each other and long for the day when their undeserved descent is reversed. Tanaka is also excellent, maternally protective in the extreme and relentless in her struggle to escape Sado Island. In the brief time that Tanaka shares with Kato and Enami, they convince as a family.
Yet as important as the cast is to Sansh˘ dayű, there is an ethereal side to the film of equal weight. This is where photography, direction, score, lighting and a thousand other elements react to form something new and unique. In capturing the actors and their setting, Kazuo Miyagawa occasionally reaches great heights of perspective and composition; the family walking through a field of tall cotton grass makes for an indelible image. This light touch can be identified quite early on, when the story meshes past with present via flashback, before skipping gently forward in time. Together Mizoguchi and Miyagawa give you just enough rope, always proceeding naturally as they let events unfold; the payback is that Sansh˘ dayű runs the full gamut of emotion, from desire to despair. The original music of Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki & Kanahichi Odera adds to, and matches, this environment with considerable, understated power.
Curiously, during the watching process itself, the realisation that this is a remarkable film arrives accompanied by emotional detachment. While the legend is both compelling and terrible in this format, it is neither involving nor immediate. The foundation for this lies in Mizoguchi's underplayed direction, whereby most aspects of Sansh˘ dayű display scant emotion, keeping all feelings in check. This is absolutely the right choice but it doesn't leave the audience much to latch onto, leaving you in limbo. Still, the morality at the film's heart emerges mountain stream clear; despite betrayal and struggle, Zushi˘ comes to follow his father's instructions on compassion and humanity. There can be no grounds on which to condone slavery, being a singularly indecent act; Mizoguchi triumphs in making this point above all others.