Yes, the new Criterion Blu-ray release of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 masterpiece Sansho the Bailiff is visually stunning, but this film would retain its beauty even if the print were dragged through the mud. Which is essentially what happens to people throughout the film: A family is literally torn apart—a mother pulled from her children, a sister from her brother—an aged slave is dragged from her straw mat and branded, another is hauled into the woods and left for dead…
None of which sounds very beautiful.
But this story of a governor in feudal Japan who is wrongly exiled due to the compassion and justness he shows his constituents, and the subsequent trials of his wife, son and daughter who are separated and sold into prostitution and slavery, is one of the most moving films in cinema history.
While Mizoguchi’s Japanese compatriot director Akira Kurosawa has remained more familiar to a wider Western audience through such films as Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954) and Ran (1985), the older Mizoguchi spun his own parallel spell, from the 1930s (Osaka Elegy, 1936) through the 1950s, with what are considered his mature masterpieces: The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff, his eighty-first film.
Kurosawa’s greater mainstream popularity may be due to the misperception that his films are faster-paced, inspired as he was, in part, by the swifter editing rhythms of classic Hollywood cinema. In truth, however, Mizoguchi’s cinema in general, and Sansho in particular, is no slower than many of Kurosawa’s fastest films. Suspenseful, economical and fleet—Sansho is as much these as it is delicate, meditative and poignant.
Like some classical music, the film frontloads a number of motifs, introducing them in the first 20 or so minutes before revisiting and drawing them out them with increasing resonance and fullness. These motifs vary from the aural (the repetition of the mother’s grief song), the visual (repeated gestures associated with the use of fire and water) and the thematic (the notion of mercy).
Mizoguchi lays out his backstory through deft cross-temporal dissolves linked compositionally by objects, figures and gestures, from past to further past to the film’s present to past again. Happier times with the family dissolve forward to images of the mother reminiscing, which then dissolve back again to images of the father preparing for his exile.
All this time travel is clarified through adroit visual choices: the son as a toddler runs diagonally one way, and the next shot of him, as an adolescent, reflects or counters the movement; or, in one very fine composite dissolve, a shot of the melancholy wife sipping from a cup in the “present” on one side of the screen meshes symmetrically with a shot of the father, in the past, performing a similar gesture, the two indelibly attached by this cinematic web of memory.
Before his exile, the father imparts to his son his central teaching, and the film’s main thematic motif: “Without mercy, man is like a beast.” All the ensuing action challenges and ultimately fulfills the father’s words.
The first Absolute Truth of Buddhism is “Life is suffering.” This is not an endorsement of or a capitulation to despair or hopelessness or even a perhaps understandable cynicism, but simply a statement of stoic irrefutability: This is what life entails; now act accordingly in order to minimize the pain of others. The difficulty, of course, is how to display mercy to someone who treats you like a beast—that is, someone who behaves beastly or barbarically themselves while treating you as if you are the barbaric animal, which is the fundamental, mutually demeaning interaction inherent in slavery.
Sansho The Bailiff meets this challenge head-on and heart-forward. The separation and abduction of the mother and children, captured in nearly one long take, is still one of cinema’s most frightening and affecting sequences. The woman pleads and shrieks as she is dragged into one boat, her children into another, her woeful wailing accompanied on the soundtrack by the hysterical ascensions of a wooden flute, the direct musical expression of all her bewildered panic and terror. The scene is unsparing in its depiction of human grief and trauma.
The testing of the father’s words becomes even more acute once the children are sold to the tyrannical Sansho, a brutal overlord with a spiked-out beard like a hairsprayed lion’s mane. Sansho is a kind of metaphoric embodiment of the cruel sufferings of the world, perhaps the reason his name serves as the film’s title. He brands the forehead of any slave who attempts escape, and dumps out any others who are physically incapable of work.
There are very clear parallels here with the then-recent horrors of World War II, particularly between Sansho’s enclave and the concentration camps. Some of the dialogue is overtly referential, such as “Why does the world turn its back on us?” or “…one must obey his superior officer.” And typical of many of the most vicious camp commandants, Sansho is an obsequious suck-up when it comes to meeting with higher officials.
The film develops a sort of spectrum or gradation of characterizations, with Sansho at one end, standing for the world’s cruelty, and the sister, Anju, at the other—compassionate and hopeful despite all her hardships. In the middle, embodying these two conflicting natures, is the son Zushio who, throughout the years has become a camp overseer himself, meting out punishments and brandings with a kind of disaffected self-loathing.
Though Anju recalls to him their father’s words, hoping to awaken his buried sense of compassion, Zushio rejects them. When the two are ordered to dump an old woman who is unable to work, the sister, in a silent act of figuring, of merciful assent (a moment brilliantly conveyed by actress Kyoko Kagawa), realizes what must be done and does not hesitate in its execution. She presses her brother to search for their mother, facilitating his escape with herself as distraction.
The film is one brutal gesture after another followed by other, greater gestures of mercy and self-sacrifice. The sister inspires the brother, who not only saves himself but the old woman discarded by Sansho, while another old woman delays or misdirects the guards from the sister’s own escape, indeed her Great Escape, through self-drowning. A chain-reaction of compassion and sacrifice.
Zushio manages eventually to become governor, his first and only decree the abolishment of slavery. Having lost both father and sister, he resigns his post in order to search for his mother. In the film’s final scene, which film scholar Mark Le Fanu characterizes, in his excellent booklet essay, as one of “grandeur and distilled poignancy”, Zushio finds her, blind and hobbled on the shoreline, singing a song (another of the film’s many motifs) for her long lost children—across the sea, across the continent, across time: “My Anju, I yearn for you…My Zushio, I yearn for you…”
Call and answer. Premonition and its resolution. Reminiscence and reality. Mizoguchi’s film manages to be both high-pitched and low-keyed, gentle and harrowing. While the basic conflict carries the overwrought charge of theatrical melodrama, the execution is abundantly assured, delicate and deliberate. Human suffering stripped to its lineaments.
Watching Sansho the Bailiff is like experiencing a fine piece of music: A note or musical phrase resonates in some deep ineffable way, and when it comes back around again it all locks in, like the tumblers of a safe nestling profoundly into place. A soft click, and the safe opens.
In this case, the safe is your heart, the film itself the nimble fingers that crack it. What’s inside? That’s the leading question of Sansho the Bailiff.
Extras include a commentary by Japanese literature scholar Jeffrey Angles; interviews with the film’s assistant director, as well as actress Kyoko Kagawa (Anju); and the booklet with Le Fanu’s essay, and two versions of the story on which the film is based.