Sessho (殺生) Taking of the Life
One of the Five Precepts in Bhuddism is not to take life. This “taking of life” is called “sessho” in Japanese. During the conversation with the priest, Horikawa says “It is worrisome that he likes sessho,” referring to his son going out to catch dragonflies. Not troubled so much, just the remark. The priest replies, “Oh, kids are like that”. Later, at night, the father and the son are talking about the plan of fishing the next day. The priest, while working on the mill, says “Don’t mind me. I already gave them last rites. But these fishes (Haya, Japanese Dace) are quite wily…”
This passage is punctuated by the bridging shots of the river. First, the panoramic shot, then the camera approaches slightly near and finally, it observes the river from the bank with stone graves in the foreground. The soundtrack is of “Wooden Fish“, the percussion used by priests in temple during the rituals. The visual composition of the shot somewhat resembles that of the earlier scene immediately after the accident in the lake.
This whole passage, culminating into the scene on the river, evokes the concept of Sanzu River, Japanese equivalent of the Styx, the river as a border between this and the other world. Reference to “Sessho” undoubtedly reminds us of the concept of Karma, the sin all of us bear in this world, while we will be free of these sins in the world beyond the river, where Horikawa’s wife rests.
During the scene on the river, there is strong power at the brighter end of the spectrum. This is introduced by the sky in the background. In terms of composition and grayscale balance, it may have been necessary to compensate for the darker principals (the father and the son). But if the river is the boundary, the world beyond is full of light. The father and the son are discussing the future in front of their deceased the wife/the mother. Also, (as in later scenes) the river signifies the parting of the father and the son.
The quiet reflection on life and death is tightly knotted together with the parting of the father and the son throughout the film. And considering the experience Ozu had before this film’s production, it is quite thought provoking. Ozu was drafted and assigned to a chemical warfare unit in China during late 1930s. The unit was responsible for spraying poison gases, such as mustard gas and Lewisite, which were, of course, prohibited by international treaty, but secretively in use in the China-Japanese War. He saw the actual combat, witnessed many of his comrades shot to death. In one of letters he posted to his friend, on March 24, 1938, he describes the death of the comrade, a Buddist priest, rather graphically. But his writing is rather succinct, with little sentiment or emotions. He was the most senior in the unit, and must have seen many younger soldiers died while he has survived.
Ozu made very few remarks about the experience during and after the war in writings or interviews and certainly not visible on his works. Though it is tempting to allude many aspects of his works, not only of this film but of many other post-war works, to his experiences in the war, we must be careful not to stretch too far in its interpretations. But I think I can safely say this: Judging from the recurring visual, audio or textual references to the boundary between this and the other world, I believe this film is dealing with the frailty of life and certainty of death at least at subconscious level.