Kenji Mizoguchi's 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.
Mizoguchi's themes throughout his work focused more on poverty, greed, morality, redemption and a women's place in Japanese society. He is known for the elegance of his compositions, the tact of his camera movement, and of his famous 'one scene, one shot theory,' which is presented in the most famous sequence of the film, where you witness the slow suicidal descent down a wooded hillside and into the water below. It is a tragic sequence not directly shown, except for the haunting images of its ripples that spread out at the center of the pond, after the victim goes under. And yet the film is looked at as having one of the most extraordinary and poignant endings in all of cinema history, a tragic ending not easily forgotten. 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.”