Based on the movie title, one would expect Sansho to be the main character. One would be wrong. In fact, Sansho is little more than a peripheral character who has a huge impact on the actual leads but doesn't even appear until a quarter of the way through the film, and then only briefly. Director Kenji Mizoguchi's adaptation of a classic Japanese story is actually about a family torn asunder by a political feud, and their decade-long quest to reconnect.
When a highly-principled governor defies a local feudal lord, he's forced into exile while his wife and two children flee for safety. Unfortunately, the mother and kids cross paths with the wrong people while they're on the run and end up separated, with the lady being sold into prostitution on a remote island and the son and daughter being sold as slaves to our titular character, Sansho. Under Sansho's tyrannical reign, the kids grow up into adulthood with no hope of rescue from their lives of servitude.
After a decade, the son has lost hope so completely that he's ok with carrying out Sansho's brutal whims, such as branding the forehead of a decrepit old slave who had dared to defy his master. The daughter retains her morals and hope for escape, but when opportunity finally presents itself she forces her brother to flee while she stays behind. What follows is a heartbreaking journey for the young man as he finds redemption, power, and what's left of his family. The closing reunion scene is extremely moving, and well worth the slow build-up throughout the rest of the film.
The film has been restored, but the restoration effort is lacking compared to most Criterion releases. Jitter and inconsistent contrast are present, along with significant dirt and debris, while the overall image quality is a bit murky. The wavering contrast is the biggest detractor, with a seeming inability to maintain consistent balance. Audio fares much better, with the restored and uncompressed monaural soundtrack largely clean and precise.
Bonus features are fairly light on the disc, with only brief recent interviews with a critic, an assistant director, and the actress who played the daughter. However, the booklet is more like a full-fledged book in this case, an 80-page behemoth that includes two full versions of the story on which the film is based, along with an essay by a film scholar.