"An era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings, it has been retold by the people for centuries and it is treasured today as one of the world's great folk tales full of grief..."
Sansho the Bailiff is the greatest of all Japanese films, and is one of the most tragic and emotionally shattering films in the world. The film is about a young man's virtue tortured and altered, emerging in the end to be only partially triumphant. The film is set in a brutal time in feudal Japan during the Heian period as a moral governor has raised his children on the ideals of love and compassion, having them remember his wise words: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.” When the governor is sent into exile his wife and children try to join him, but are suddenly kidnapped by merchants and separated. Zushio and his sister Anju are sold into a barbaric slavery camp of forced labor ruled under the ruthless Sansho, while their mother is sold into prostitution; and they will remain prisoners for the next ten years. Throughout these horrific years Zushio won't be able to hold onto his father's ideals, and will ultimately become a ruthless barbarian following the atrocious commands of Sansho by branding the foreheads of any prisoners who attempt escape, including a 70 year old victim who has labored for half a century and yearns to die free. I find it odd for Mizoguchi to name the movie after its villain, and not of the morally lost Zushio, and yet this choice reflects the director’s tragic vision. I love Japanese cinema especially the works of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and the great and most underrated of the three, Kenji Mizoguchi. The young French critics of the Cahiers du cinema were crazy about his work, and they thought Mizoguchi was not only the greatest of Japanese masters, but high in the ranks of the greatest filmmakers who have ever practiced the art.
Sansho the Bailiff's story is set in a brutal time in feudal Japan during the Heian period; and the opening shot shows a governors wife named Tamaki and his two children traveling to Tsukushi to be with him because the governor was ordered to be banished off the land.
The governor is a strong and moral man who was punished opposing the general's demands because he was tired seeing poor peasants starving from famine and getting their taxes increased on rice. Many of the villagers fight back to help their governor and want to appeal to the general's office, but it's no use. The governor tries to talk to his uncle but his uncle is outraged at his behavior and what he's doing to his family.
The governor tells him that the peasants are being treated horrible and his uncle is furious that he is comparing themselves to these peasants. After he is exiled he tells his wife Tamaki to take the children to her parents home in Iwashiro.
Before they leave the governor tells his son Zushio, "I wonder if you'll become a stubborn man like me. You may be too young to understand, but hear me out anyway. Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness." His father then gives Zushio a Kwannon which is a symbol of their family.
Years pass and the wife of the governor, her daughter Anju and her son Zushio are traveling with Zushio's mother reminding Zushio every day what his father taught him. One morning Tamaki, Zushio, Anju and their servant are manipulated and tricked during their travels by an hypocritical priestess who tells them to go by boat so they aren't attacked by bandits.
Instead when arriving at the boats Tamaki and her servant are taken hostage and sent across the river sold into a slavery and prostitution camp. Zushio and Anju are eventually picked up and sold to another camp. At first when the kids are sold to the camp they are considered to young and weak, but they eventually are found to be useful for simple tasks like sweeping the yard.
The camp which the children were sold to is run by the powerful and vicious Sansho who is a bailiff who is protected under the minister of right and who their father once worked for before he was banished. There mother was sold to Sado a camp across the river.
In Sansho's camp they are forced to do grueling work and the slaves there are beaten, tortured and forced to work under horrible working conditions. Any slave that tries to escape the camp their face is permanently branded by hot coal. The first branding they see is a slave name Naniji who tried escaping when Zushio and Anju reminded her of her children.
At Sansho's slavery camp Sansho has a son Taro who is next in charge and very different from his brutal father. He is very caring and humane to the slaves and Taro notices the children when they first arrive and Taro is outraged. "Even children as young as you are sold and bought, treated like animals, and nobody questions it. What a horrible world."
In time Taro notices Anju and Tamaki don't seem like peasant slaves and asks them who they are but the two children refuse to give him there real names. Later on Taro soon realizes they were sold to his father's camp illegally. He tries to convince Anju and Zushio that they must endure the pain until they are older than one day escape and find their parents. Taro gives them false names to protect themselves while in the camp, and if they need anything to come directly to him.
Several years pass and when the children get older and grow into adulthood, Anju still believes in the strong teachings of her father, but Zushio has lost his hope, grew bitter and angry and repressed his humanity. He eventually becomes one of Sansho's overseers and helps in the capture and torture of runaway slaves and soon loses everything his father raised him up on.
Many of the other slaves now look at Zushio as a brutal man who must be the son of a bandit for helping carrying out Sansho's wicked requests. During the years Anju hears a song her mother used to sing to her and Zushio when they were younger from a new slave girl from Sado, which mentions her and her brother in the lyrics of the song, which leads her to believe their mother is still alive. That evening when Anju and Zushio are working Anju starts humming their mothers tune.
"Anju, stop it! Stop singing."
"It's the first news about Mother we've heard. Don't you care? Don't you think of Father and Mother anymore? Don't you want to see them again?"
"What's the use of wanting?"
"If we escape we'll find a way."
"How? We don't have any money. How will we look for them? Despite our births, we're servants now. Slaves!"
"You already have the heart of a bandit! A soul lower than that of a beggar! How can you brand an old man's forehead like that? How can you be so brutal? Did you forget Father's words? Don't you feel shame before the goddess of mercy? You have changed."
One day Zushio is ordered to take Naniji outside of the camp to be punished and left to die because of her age and uselessness, while Anju tries to talk him out of doing it. He coldly answers, "It's the Bailiff's orders," and takes her outside. Anju goes along with Zushio to help set up a nice resting place for Naniji to die.
While out there Anju and Zushio recall childhood memories while breaking down branches like they did when they were children. Anju says to Zushio, "Brother, doesn't this remind you of the time we camped near Naoe Port? Mother had us gather straw and grass like this, remember?" They suddenly hear mother calling out their names from across the river. "Anjuuuuuu", Zushioooo..." and it then trigger's Zushio's repressed memories about his fathers past lessons and slowly everything comes back to him."Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness."
Zushio snaps out of it and finally changes his mind about not wanting to escape. He tells Anju for them to escape together they must do it at that very moment. Zushio picks up Naniji and tells Anju they can all three go and try to find their mother, now knowing she is alive across the river. Anju knows if they both escape at the same time they would have a lesser chance of escaping so she convinces her brother to take Naniji to a temple at Nakayama.
She will stay there for the time being to distract the guards so Zushio can get a head start before her. "Zushio, run. I'll delay them. Meanwhile run away as fast as you can." Zushio can't leave without his sister saying, "I can't leave you, they'll torture you." Anju says, "they don't kill slaves often" and to not worry about her. "I'll come back for you," says Zushio, "if it's the last thing I do!!!"
There is a sacrifice in the film that Anju makes after Zushio escapes that is deeply harrowing. Knowing when she is caught, she will eventually be tortured and forced to talk for being an accessory to her brother's escape, she calmly decides to let herself drown. The two or three shots of Anju descending down the wooded hillside and into the water to commit a slow suicidal drowning is one of the most powerful shot scenes ever committed to celluloid. The ripples that spread out at the center of the pond after she goes under, gives this film such a tragic but profound power.
When Zushio finally escapes, and arrives at Nakayama with Naniji he gets help from Taro who no longer works for his father and now works for the holy man in the imperial temple. With Taro's help he hides the both of them when Sansho's mob comes through the temple searching for him. The priest in charge of the temple confronts the mob and tells them, "Seeking one of your servants? No one gets shelter here without my permission. As I haven't given any, he can't be here. Trespassers will be severely punished!"
After the mob leaves Taro goes to check on Naniji who is now recovering with medicine that was given to her. Taro then asks Zushio, "What are your plans?" Zushio tells him he's going to go to Kyoto to appeal to the Chief Advisor on the horrific conditions of Sansho the Bailiff's work camp.
Taro said he tried that once and failed. He then tells Zushio, "I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them. They're ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed...the world you dream of cannot come true." Zushio says he must go no matter how difficult it is. Taro understands and gives a letter written by the priest to give to the head advisor. Zushio travels to Kyoto and at first is dismissed, until the Chief Advisor's men take his fathers Kwannon from him and show it to the Chief Advisor; which finally gets the Chief Advisor's attention.
He then asks to see Zushio and when brought to him is asked where he got this Kwannon. When Zushio tells him it was passed down by his father the Chief Advisor tells him he knew his father when in office. He then unfortunately tells Zushio that his father had died during the spring of last year. Then the Advisor lets him know that he sympathizes with him and the hardships he had to endure saying how he very much respected his father and if he was in office at the time his father was banished he wouldn't have let it happen.
He then tells Zushio that in recognition of his fathers achievements and efforts he will arrange for him to succeed his father's title. Zushio asks, "For me...my Lord?" He gives him the position as governor of Tango. The next scene shows Zushio now in uniform and as the governor of Tango. Zushio uses his authority for personal matters to help people even though his counsel objects; just as his father did when he was on the throne. He wants to take down all the brutal slave camps and free everyone including his sister and mother. He then passes a law in which all provinces prohibit the sale of a human being and makes it forbidden by the penalty of the law.
No one believes he can do this, since Governors have no command over private grounds and Sansho offers initial resistance by having his men destroy the signs which state the edict. Sansho the Bailiff wants to meet this new governor of Tango; who is trying to pass this new law. Of course when Zushio arrives at Sansho's camp; Sansho has no idea he was once one of his former slaves.
One of the great scenes of the film is when he eventually confronts Sansho now as the governor of Tango. When Sansho politely invites him in Zushio bluntly say's "It's been a while Sansho." Sansho looks up and recognizes him and can't believe his eyes. Zushio say's, "I do not come as a friend. You and your men are under arrest." Sansho gets upset and says, "I don't know how you rose to this position of yours, but a slave becoming a governor, that's a true fairytale!" Zushio ignores his comments and says his property will be confiscated and he will be exiled. "Arrest him!"
After Sansho is arrested by Zushio's men, Zushio steps outside in view of all the slaves and makes one of the greatest speeches in film: "Listen carefully, friends. In the province of Tango slave trade has been banned. From this moment on, you are no longer the property of Sansho the Bailiff. You are all now free! You may go home as you wish. You may stay here and work. You will be paid or given land as your own." Zushio then apologizes to the man he branded years before and asks for his sister. Unfortunately he is told that she committed suicide. "Why didn't you wait for me," he says to his deceased sister by the pond where she died. "It was your great faith that gave me back my life."
After freeing all the slaves from Sansho's camp Zushio eventually gives up his title as Governor. He then travels across the river to search for his mother. He asks around and people send him to a brothel and a whorehouse but he still can't find her.
Suddenly he hears a frail weak voice singing the haunting song that his mother sang to him and his sister Anju when they were very young, near the river. The classic reunion between mother and son is one of the greatest and most emotional endings ever committed to celluloid.
"Mother, its me Zushio! I came for you mother!," he cries as he throws himself at her feet. He gives her the Kwannon that his father gave to him when he was a boy. Now realizing its her son she asks, "Are you alone? Anju is with you, right? Anju, where is she? Please bring her. Right away." Zushio tells his mother, "Anju has gone to join father. No, mother. It's just you and I. Were all alone now. I could have come to you as a governor but I gave up my title in order to follow Father's teachings. Please mother, forgive me!!!"
What makes the ending so powerful is not only the reuniting with Zushio's mother but that his mother doesn't know and will never know the brutal things her son has done in the past. She says to her son, "What is there to forgive? Without knowing what you have done I know that is because you have listened to your fathers words, that we are, at last, to be here together..."
If you took a quick poll of the general population of film lovers as to who the most famous classic Japanese directors are, the list would probably be headed by Akira Kurosawa. He is certainly the most visible of the old Japanese masters, though Yasujiro Ozu would likely run him a close second. Trailing some way behind these twin modern favorites, there might, just might, appear a third name, that of Kenji Mizoguchi, the eldest of the trio and the director of eighty-six films made between 1923 and 1956.
Fifty years ago, the same list would have been differently ordered: invisible, or nearly invisible, then would have been Ozu, whose movies only really began to be known in the West during the 1960s. Kurosawa’s fame has indeed been constant: films like Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), then and now, have been absolutely instrumental in introducing the glories of Japanese cinema to Western audiences. But the really resplendent name in the old days was Mizoguchi’s. The French, in particular, were crazy about his work: it was an item of faith among the young critics at Cahiers du cinéma during the fifties (who included future film directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette) that Mizoguchi was not only the greatest of Japanese masters but also high in the ranks of the greatest filmmakers who had ever practiced the art. General audiences and festival juries of the time tended to share this view: in three successive years at the beginning of the 1950s, Mizoguchi films—The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954)—won top awards at the Venice Film Festival, an unprecedented achievement.
The reasons for the subsequent decline in his fame are hard to pin down. Mizoguchi is a demanding director, and he is not easy to pigeonhole.Unlike the work of Kurosawa or Ozu, his films rarely fit into identifiable genre categories—for instance, the samurai film or shomin-geki (films about the ordinary existence of middle-class people). And, after the initial enthusiasm of the French, he was somewhat neglected by the critical and scholarly worlds. Perhaps it was his eclecticism. Although Mizoguchi’s main, abiding theme was the historical condition of women in Japanese society—a subject he approaches with extreme tenderness and sympathy, and with a correspondingly caustic political scorn toward the conditions that, over the centuries, combined to keep this section of humanity in servitude—he grappled with this topic from many different angles. Still, if Mizoguchi’s star once waned, it is one of the ongoing achievements of the DVD revolution that it can help us redress these lapses. Films and filmmakers are granted another chance to be examined and judged—not only by critics and scholars but, just as important, by the wider general public. And, happily, this is what has been happening with Mizoguchi.
After a long apprenticeship in the silent cinema, Mizoguchi hit his stride as a director in the early 1930s, a golden age for Japanese cinema. A series of films set in the Meiji (roughly, the late Victorian) epoch were followed by two films of striking modernity on which his reputation was established: Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both of which came out in 1936). A number of defining aspects of Mizoguchi’s cinema come together in these movies: skill with actresses, realism of texture and dialogue, total lack of sentimentality in outlook, and a marked stylistic preference for the long take over editing as a method for building narrative. All these traits appear in his subsequent films, with different emphases at different stages of his career. Sometimes he is a rigorously austere stylistic perfectionist (as in his wartime version of the famous samurai tale The 47 Ronin); at other times—for example, in a series of postwar films influenced by neorealism—he comes across as “expressive,” provisional, and committed to the sketch. His social canvas varies too, enormously, from the lower depths (above all, the world of geisha and prostitution) to the peaks of aristocratic society, and he roams through the centuries.
Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi’s eighty-first film, belongs with a group of four or five outstanding masterpieces on historical themes, including Ugetsu, that he directed late in his career for the Daiei production company. Like almost all the films of his maturity, it is based on a literary original, in this case a short story by the important early-twentieth-century writer Ogai Mori, about a brother and sister in eleventh-century Japan who, journeying to meet their exiled father, become separated from their mother and are sold into slavery. Mori’s tale is included in this book (as is a written version of an oral-folktale variation), so the interested reader has the chance to examine close-up what Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda preserved in their adaptation and what they altered. Two changes seem especially interesting and worth exploring.
The first concerns the place of music in the tale. At the end of Mori’s original story, the son, Zushio, is alerted to the truth that the blind, decrepit woman sitting on the ground in front of him is in fact his mother by the song she is singing, whose pathetic words include his own name and that of his sister:
My Anju, I yearn for you. Fly away! My Zushio, I yearn for you. Fly away! Little birds, if you are living still, Fly, fly far away! I will not chase you.
(“Little birds” here has a double meaning, referring both to the grain-stealing sparrows that the mother is employed to ward off with her long wooden pole and to her never-forgotten children.) In Mizoguchi’s movie, this tiny snatch of song is taken up by a kind of intuitive genius and transformed into the very core of the drama. For instead of our coming across the song for the first time at the moment of climax, we feel in the film that we are wonderfully coming back to it. Indeed, that it has never really left us. Introduced early into the texture of the movie, by Anju’s chance encounter with a peasant girl from Sado who heard it sung to her in childhood (in Mori’s tale, this character, named Kohagi, plays an altogether insignificant role), the refrain returns in a beautiful passage later in the film in which Anju and Zushio, alone in the forest glade, seem to hear their mother calling to them from across the ocean by means of the plaintive cooing of a turtledove.
“Anj . . . u . . . Zush . . . io!” The lingering cadence of this great lament is hard to forget. The instant telepathy conveyed through the song, joining mother and children across the water, serves to rescue Zushio and his sister from despondency and to give them renewed heart for battle. Its deployment takes us back to the great traditions of silent melodrama, to the cinema of Mizoguchi’s youth, where musical accompaniment made explicit the emotion contained in the image—bringing the work of art to quickness and life. Indeed, it is impossible to think of Sansho the Bailiff without its music: the film’s flute- and harp-driven score, by longtime collaborator Fumio Hayasaka, is one of the most delicate in Mizoguchi’s oeuvre.
Mizoguchi and Yoda’s second most daring alteration to the original was structural and psychological: it was to decide to make Zushio a slave to Sansho’s system not only in body but in spirit. In the short story, he is younger than his sister, Anju, whose uncomplicated protective goodness succeeds in conserving his innocence. Mizoguchi and Yoda, on the other hand, made him two or three years older than she is and contrived the innovation that, when puberty comes, he will be corrupted (if only temporarily) by his surroundings. In the film, Zushio becomes a “trusty”: the blackest of black souls, a bitter young man who can be relied upon to wield the branding iron and not flinch when applying it to weeping and panic-stricken slaves who have been caught trying to escape from the compound.
That whole new plot strand has consequences. Mori’s story is plainly, in its austere way, a study of redemption, in the sense that mother and son are eventually reunited in each other’s arms and come to understand the meaning of their destiny. Yet the force of this redemption, it seems to me, is immeasurably heightened in the movie by the consideration that Zushio, miraculously, has brought himself back from the damned. “Forgive me, Mother,” he cries, as he throws himself at her feet. To which the blind Tomiko replies, with her wonderful lucidity (now that she has grasped, through touch, that it is indeed Zushio who is kneeling in front of her): “What is there to forgive? Without knowing what you have done, I know that it is because you have listened to your father’s words that we are able, at last, to be here together.”
In its grandeur and distilled poignancy, this must be one of the most powerful moments in the history of cinema. The whole great scene is electrifying. As the British critic Gilbert Adair says, “Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films for which cinema exists—just as it perhaps exists for the sake of its last scene.” Reflecting upon its force leads one to ponder some of the wider themes and motivations that may lie behind this supreme work of art. Japan has often been (and continues to be) told that it has never sufficiently acknowledged blame for its disastrous military adventurism in the 1930s and 1940s. That may or may not be true, on an official level; it is certainly still a sore point in many contexts, especially, of course, among Japan’s closest neighbors. Yet in Sansho the Bailiff, it is hard not to see the lineaments of at least one private attempt to face up to, and to expiate, Japan’s wartime history. Set in the remote Heian past, the film also, unmistakably, refers to the Second World War—the cruelties of the medieval slave compound interchanging metaphorically and seamlessly with the yet more terrible cruelties of the modern concentration camps. The original story was written in 1915, and though the rest of the world was then in conflict, Japan at that time was only on the fringes of the firmament. There don’t seem to be any good grounds for believing that the specter of nationalist militarism was uppermost in Mori’s thoughts in writing the tale (if anything, he was rather nationalist himself). Yet the tale is prophetically relevant—even if it took Mizoguchi to see this.
The underlying response of the movie to these complicated ideological impulsions may be interpreted both politically and religiously. Seen from a political point of view, the film seems to expound the purest liberalism. Against tyranny it sets law; against captivity, freedom. The story takes place, as the opening caption informs us, in “an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings,” and charts imaginatively (perhaps even anachronistically) the first stirrings of protodemocratic consciousness. All viewers remember the words that Zushio’s father teaches him before being sent into exile: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.” The lesson, beautifully shot, in one of the film’s finest scenes, is delivered over a miniature effigy of the goddess Kwannon that is then entrusted to the boy as his parting gift.
Kwannon is a Buddhist deity, and Sansho the Bailiff, we ought to remind ourselves, is also a religious film—one of the few truly great films about which such a claim may meaningfully be made. Religion, in the last resort, is arguably even more important than the politics. For though the message of compassion taught by Buddha is compatible with liberalism, in another way it cannot help seeming to trump it. It is impossible not to sense, in other words, that the message of the film is renunciation, and that in that renunciation, democratic activist politics are finally renounced too.
Renounced, but not forgotten. And definitely not vilified. It is a matter of appropriateness and timing. First free the slaves, then resign your titles. Still, however one looks at the matter, power and office are mistrusted, poverty and sacrifice vindicated. Throughout his career, sacrifice had been one of Mizoguchi’s great subjects. Here it emerges as the crux of one of the film’s most beautiful sequences, the episode in which Anju lays down her life so that her brother may escape to Kyoto. In our modern age, such a gesture is open, alas, to misunderstanding. Why should Anju offer herself up so nobly? Couldn’t they—shouldn’t they—have tried to escape together? Why, finally (a feminist might ask), her rather than him? These questions are all understandable, yet they probably miss the point. The “truth” of the sequence, and its sublime justification, resides in how it is expounded, from moment to moment.
First of all, there is the practical matter: somebody has to occupy the guard’s attention in order for the other to get a head start. It could be him; it could be her. But it is her plan—thought up in an instant—and this is the way she wants it (added to which, there is no getting away from the fact that Zushio is stronger and fleeter). We have to bear in mind that the whole affair takes place in a minute, and that right up to the moment it is happening, no one knows what the outcome will be. Does Anju believe her decision will mean certain death for her? Probably she does. Yet, in another way, such a fate is not so terrible after all, for sooner or later, all of them—her brother and father and mother—will meet up with her again in paradise. So the open gate, and the beckoning lake, are just confirmations from “on high” of the rightness and blessedness of her thinking. Once the decision is made, there is a wonderful triumph—a wonderful happiness—in her bearing. Indeed, the two or three shots that show Anju’s descent down the wooded hillside and into the water are surely among the most beautiful ever committed to celluloid: editing, framing, timing, shot duration are perfection itself. Seldom in film are we privileged to witness such concentrated, preternatural stillness. A delicate ellipsis spares us the sight of Anju’s actual moment of immersion. In compensation, the ripples that spread out from the center of the pond become the ripples of memory itself, and an emblem of the film’s profound thoughtfulness.
-Mark Le Fanu
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff brings to mind the first line of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The film has a penetrating mournfulness. Mizoguchi develops his medieval fable about moral freedom and slavery with intuition, cunning, and an overarching sense of tragedy; as it uncoils, this masterwork spirals and expands to encompass all the tricks of history and fate, all the failures of ethics and character that can defeat the best intentions of idealists.
Despite the antiquity of Mizoguchi’s epic folk tale, it speaks to a world scarred by fascism—indeed, the movie may register with American audiences more strongly now than when it premiered four decades ago. The setting is an eleventh-century regime that rewards automatic obedience and efficiency, punishes individualism and altruism, and condones private slave camps that grind men and women to death. The whole environment—physical, emotional, and moral—is close to that of Schindler’s List. When the antihero, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), an escaped slave who becomes a governor, succeeds in freeing his former fellow captives, he, like Oskar Schindler, loses everything except his self-respect. It may seem odd for Mizoguchi to name the movie for its villain—the ruthless taskmaster of a sprawling compound—instead of for the late-blooming Zushio. But the choice reflects the director’s tragic vision. The film is about virtue tortured and altered, emerging only partially triumphant.
Zushio’s statesman father, exiled because he shielded his peasants from a military draft, taught his son that “without mercy, a man is like a beast.” When kidnappers separate Zushio and his sister Anju from their mother—the children are sold into bondage, the mother into prostitution—the boy can’t hold onto his father’s ideals. In Sansho’s inferno, Zushio becomes a barbarian—ike the worst concentration-camp Kapo, he willingly follows Sansho’s command to brand attempted escapees on the forehead—even if the victim is a 70-year-old man who has labored for half a century and yearns only to die free. The first half hour, which depicts the downfall of Zushio’s father and the dispersal of his family, is a cascade of flashbacks and present-tense action.
Kinuyo Tanaka brings a tremulous eloquence to the role of the mother—she’s the movie’s heart as much as the father is its conscience. The most beautiful and ominous image is of the family walking through a field of long grass and reeds, the flora floating above their heads like an army’s plumes; the most devastating sequence shows the mother and nurse being thrown into a boat while the children are seized onshore. Once Zushio and Anju arrive at Sansho’s camp, this volatile lyricism gives way to a steady, cumulative power. It’s as if Mizoguchi is saying, with melancholy, that this is how the world works.
Mizoguchi’s packed compositions express the harrowing pull of the narrative line—and the residual humanity that tugs against it. Every positive action in this movie has an opposite reaction, leaving an increment of glory in defeat. When Zushio regains his empathy and honor and flees Sansho’s camp, Anju (the spiritually radiant Kyoko Kagawa) protects his flight with her life. There’s never been a more rending and transcendent vision of reunion than the tearful clasping of Zushio to his hobbled, half-mad mother. Zushio finds her on a tidal-wave-ravaged island. He tells her that Anju and his father are dead, then begs her forgiveness for arriving without the wealth or power to help her; in order to follow his father’s precepts, he had to relinquish the office of governor. His mother replies that if he weren't faithful to his father’s memory, she and Sansho “couldn't meet here this way now.” Irony and tragedy merge—you cry for what they've lost and what they've saved.
If you would do a poll on the greatest Japanese directors you would get Akira Kurosawa in the far lead with Yasujiro Ozu a distant second and Mizoguchi being unfortunately in the third. And yet Mizoguchi's films are just as important, poetic and say just as much about Japanese culture than Kurosawa and Ozu, maybe more. Like Ozu and Kurosawa, Mizoguchi had his own personal themes that he relished on in each film he made. His themes mostly focused on poverty, greed, morality, redemption and a women's place in Japanese society. He is known for the elegance of his compositions and the tact of his camera movement, and his theory 'one scene, one shot,' as in the tragic sequence in the film where the slow suicide down a wooded hillside and into the water is not directly shown, except for the ripples that spread out at the center of the pond after the person goes under.
Sansho was the last of Mizoguchi's films to win an award at the Venice Film Festival, which brought him much attention of Western critics and film-makers. His other masterpieces include The Life of Oharu, which tells a story of a middle-aged prostitute in 17th century Japan and how she got to where she is, The Crucified Lovers, which is about a wealthy scroll-maker who is falsely accused of having an affair with his best worker, and then their is one of my favorites, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum which tells the story of the son of a famous actor, who is openly praised for his performance on the stage just due to his name. Street of Shame is a film that tells the various stories on the lives of several prostitutes in a brothel. And last but not least is Ugetsu, a romantic ghost story about two men, one who wants to be a samurai, another who wants to be rich; and the tragedy that occurs for the both of them. Ugetsu is considered along with Sansho the Bailiff as being one of the greatest of all Japanese films.
A lot of Japanese cinema developed largely in isolation from the West until the end of World War II. With the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923, it led to the rebuilding and modernization of the film industry. There were two types of Japanese films which were developed because of that: The Jadai-geki, which were historical films (made in Kyoto) set in pre-Mediji restoration period before 1868; For example, The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ugetsu, and the great Sansho the Bailiff. And the Gendai-geki which were contemporary films made in Tokyo, like Tokyo Story and most of Ozu's films. In 1945 Japan was in ruins after the droppings of atomic bombs on Hiroshima & Nagasaki with over 900,000 casualties, which encouraged the production of meiji-mono and gendai-geki (films of contemporary life).
Sansho the Bailiff is a heartbreaking and extremely harrowing story about a young man's virtue tortured and altered, but will find some form of spiritual redemption and return as a reborn man; getting justice to the unjust and emerge in the end to be only partially triumphant. One of the most beautiful and poignant images in the film is near the beginning of the story when the family is making their way through a field of long grass and weeds, with a dense underbrush being effected throughout the frame, which reflects the compositional rules of classic cinema. Movement forward in backward suggest time, as Roger Ebert states, "Movement to left suggests backward in time, to the right, forward. Diagonals move in the direction of their sharpest angle. Upward movement is hopeful, downward ominous. By moving from upper left to lower right, they are descending into an unpromising future."
Zushio's mother brings to the story the heart for Zushio and Anju, while the father brings the conscience. The song that is sung by another prisoner will be the song from their mother (which proves she is still alive) and it is echoed once again as a cry for help and redemption: "Zushio, Anju, come back, I need you." It is their mother's ghostly voice, and the inspirational words from their father that she speaks of which will reform the spiritually lost Zushio, and he will gain back the love and compassion he once lost. A most devastating sequence is where the mother and nurse are tricked and later kidnapped the merchants, being forced to be thrown into a boat while the children are seized onshore shortly after. There is a sacrifice in the film, that is deeply harrowing and tragic. Anju sacrifices herself to be an distraction for her brother Zushio's escape from Sansho's slavery camp. Knowing when she is caught, she will eventually be tortured and forced to talk for being an accessory to her brother's escape, she calmly decides to let herself drown. The two or three shots of Anju descending down the wooded hillside and into the water to commit a slow suicidal drowning is one of the most powerful shot scenes ever committed to celluloid. The ripples that spread out at the center of the pond after she calmly goes under, gives this film such a tragic but profound power.
Sansho runs a barbaric prison camp, as he is a violent tormentor and sadist, a man who enjoys the dominance, torture and explicit pain of others. Despite Mizoguchi’s basing Sansho the Bailiff on a folk tale by Mori Ogai, a lot of critics believe that Mizoguchi is speaking about war and the themes of fascism government. The setting is an eleventh-century regime that rewards automatic obedience and efficiency, punishes individualism and altruism, and condones private slave camps that grind men and women to their death. The whole bleak environment of its torture camps, death, and slavery brings to mind Steven Speilberg's World War II drama Schinder's List. Zushio, an escaped slave eventually returns to the camps as a high-ranking governor, and succeeds in freeing his fellow captives, with himself begging the elderly man he once branded for his forgiveness. Many see parallels of Zushio to Oskar Schindler, a man of power saving the lives of the captives in a prisoner of war camp. When Zushio makes his inspirational speech to his freed captives, you immediately think of the ending of Schindler's List, when Oskar breaks down in tears on how he could have done more, as both of these character ultimately lose everything, except for their self-respect.
Sansho the Bailiff is now greatly revered by many critics as one of the greatest films in the world; with Roger Ebert adding it to his 'Great Movies' list stating "Sometimes it is difficult to say exactly why a story strikes us with such power. In the case of Sansho the Bailiff, it may be the unrelieved tragedy that strikes this good family for no good reason. They are not destroyed instantly, in a natural cataclysm, but separated for long years to know and experience their fates. That gives us time enough to know and believe the depth of Sansho's cruelty. Some humans are born without kindness or mercy, and do with pleasure what others could not do at all." The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote in his September, 2006 profile on Mizoguchi, "I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to whether such an ordeal." Sansho the Bailiff is essentially a tragic tale because of the many evils of man and the creation of slavery; as a loving family is torn apart and can never be rebuilt again. This is a very harrowing film that stirs the themes of the human condition. It's a grim morality tale about how a man's soul can be blackened, and yet in the end gain back some of what was once lost. The themes in Sansho the Bailiff are very universal and timeless: Against Tyranny it sets laws, against captivity; freedom. The message in the film is fascinating, showing Zushio first freeing all the slaves and finishing what he accomplished; to eventually resign his title in honor of his father's teachings. The film explores how power and office can be something easily mistrusted, misused and corrupted, and how poverty and sacrifice can still be vindicated. In the sequence when Zushio returns to arrest Sansho and free the captives, Sansho exclaims, “It’s like a fairy tale! A slave becoming a governor!” But it's not a fairy tale, and in the end no one lives happily ever after. I have seen a lot of harrowing endings in the movies but the ending to Sansho the Bailiff will be always be etched in my head forever, as it explores the strengths and the tenuousness of family ties. There’s never been a more rending and transcendent vision of reunion than the tearful embrace of Zushio to his hobbled, half-mad mother when finally discovering her on a tidal-wave-ravaged island. He tells her that Anju and his father are dead, then begs her forgiveness for arriving without the wealth or power to help her; in order to follow his father’s precepts, he had to relinquish the office of governor. His mother replies that if he weren't faithful to his father’s memory, she and Sansho “couldn't meet here this way now.” Irony and tragedy merge, the audience cries for what they've lost and what they've saved. British Critic Gilbert Adair said it best when it came to the ending of Sansho the Bailiff: "Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films for which cinema exists-just as it perhaps exists for the sake of its last scene." The ending of the film has a resolution, reconciliation and forgiveness (not of Sansho), but the tragedy that striked this good family down has already done its damage, and the damage can never be repaired. Zuchio does gain back the humanity and compassion that he once lost, and he does reunite with his mother again, but the ending is not blissful. Terrifying and cathartic, Sansho the Bailiff is a morality play without easy moralism. The heartbreaking ending cannot be expressed with words and must only be witnessed.