In a video interview titled “Production” on Criterion’s Sansho the Bailiff release, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka is refreshingly candid about what has been called one of the best films of all time. “He wasn’t happy making the film. He wasn’t making what he intended, and I was the only person to whom Mizoguchi could vent his frustration.”
In 1954 Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi was in the heart of his most acclaimed period. Sansho the Bailiff followed Life of Oharu and Ugetsu to win top prizes at the Venice Film Festival. He was receiving rapturous praise from prominent film critics. Jean-Luc Godard dubbed him ““Quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers.”
Mizoguchi has faded a bit from cultural memory outside academic and art buff circles, but there has lately been an attempt to revive his work through Janus-affiliated retrospectives and deluxe Criterion DVD releases. It’s much appreciated. Slow to the game, I first saw Life of Oharu at New York’s Film Forum and wondered why this amazing stylist has been largely overshadowed by post-war compatriots Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa.
Mizoguchi’s patient minimalism and roiling interior emotions do not lend themselves to mass popularity. So it is perhaps not surprising that Sansho, featuring accessible climatic set pieces of a prison escape and slave revolt, should be one of his more memorialized movies. It is still a great film, but lacks the cohesion and lyric consistency of his masterpieces. Criterion’s thorough but not bloated package does a fine job of preserving its strengths while contextualizing its weaknesses. Says Tanaka, “I don’t exactly agree that it’s his best film, as some critics say. I don’t put much faith in their regard for this film. I feel that Mizoguchi himself didn’t derive real fulfillment from this film.”
What struck me first is that Tanaka so readily recognizes both his and Mizoguchi’s underwhelming opinion of Sansho. Secondly, what the director apparently wanted to expand upon is what I feel are its least successful aspects.
As the opening title card announces, this is “one of the world’s great folk tales, full of grief.” Set during the classical Heian period, the central story tells of a brother and sister, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), traveling with their mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) to meet their long lost father. They are captured, separated from their mother, and sold into slavery to the baron Sansho Dayu (Eitaro Shindo).
They learn to accept their fate until Anju sacrifices herself so that her brother can escape to reunite with their father and mother. It is a story of terrific suffering alleviated by hard-won slivers of redemption. In this way it is emotionally consistent with Mizoguchi’s films of the period and the short story “Sansho the Steward” by Ogai Mori upon which the film is based. (The original story and an oral transcript of the folk tale are included in the DVD booklet.)
Yet Tanaka says, “The sad story of Anju and Zushio wasn’t what interested Mizoguchi from the beginning. It was Sansho the Bailiff, a slave owner of the time that he wanted to focus on. The subject matter that Mizoguchi really wanted to depict, and his initial intention to focus on the slavery system, were watered down quite a bit, and the sad story of Anju and Zushio became the central theme of the film.”
In a second video interview, “Simplicity”, critic Tadao Sato says Mizoguchi looked for actresses who were “gentle on the outside, but fiery within.” That also describes his filmmaking footprint in general. The visuals are marked by Kazuo Miyagawa’s fluid crane shots and long performance-centered takes that actress Kagawa recalls, “let you maintain emotional continuity…it’s more natural.”
But the scenes set at Sansho’s manor invert this formula. He is bombastic on the outside; the two main sequences here are marked by action and quick cuts. The characters are painted with wide overdramatic strokes. When Zushio orders the manor closed, the story offers an easy and unconvincing resolution to Sansho’s feudal slave system. Sansho is thematically important but narratively should be an incidental character.
In fact, Mori’s story reads more like a Mizoguchi film than the director’s adaptation. It maintains its spare and eloquent tone throughout. When Zushio escapes from Sansho’s manor, Mori writes:
Anju stood by the spring and watched the figure of her brother grow smaller as he appeared then disappeared behind rows of pine trees. The sun was almost at its highest point, yet she made no effort to climb the mountain again. Fortunately there seemed no other woodcutters at work nearby, so no one questioned Anju, who stood idling away her time at the foot of the mountain path.
Mizoguchi stages the scene as an action sequence with more kinetic, but distracting results that creates a weird tonal shift to Anju’s subsequent suicide. The film’s most beautifully shot and effective scenes concern the “sad story of Anju and Zushio”: the initial separation, Anju’s suicide, the mother’s calling out to her children wailing “how I long for you, isn’t life torture”, and the closing moments. Here the visuals have a graceful illusory quality suiting the characters’ stark lives and quiet dignity. The action is driven by Kagawa and Tanaka and the intensity of their characters’ suffering.
We will most likely never know how Mizoguchi envisioned the final film should play out. Despite his apparent unhappiness with the finished product, that so much of the film works magnificently is evidence of his hard driving perfectionism. The Criterion edition includes further insights into his working methods: how he blocked shots, the role of composer Fumio Hayasaka, and the use of “reflecting” to enhance performance. Though flawed, it is still a successful and multi-layered work. Its many positives have not been diluted with time. Tanaka concludes his interview, “I think, nevertheless that it is true to his style. Mizoguchi is Mizoguchi.”