Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Kenji Mizoguchi's 1954 Sansho the Bailiff is considered one of the greatest Japanese films ever made. Deceptively simple in style and structure, it retells an old story of injustice and slavery, adjusting its message for modern times. Life is hardship and pain, but it can yield meaning if one strives for the common good.
A provincial governor in feudal Japan is demoted for protecting the poor. His loyal wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and two small children Anju and Zushio (Kyoko Kagawa & Yoshiaki Hanayagi, as adults) must journey unescorted to live with relatives. On the way they're tricked by bandits and sold into slavery. The children become laborers for the cruel landlord Sansho Dayu (Eitaro Shindo); they hide their true names and begin years of drudgery on Sansho's work farm. Tamaki is sold into prostitution and takes the name Nakagimi. Her lament for her lost children becomes part of the area's folk culture; Anju eventually hears it in Sansho's workshops and takes heart knowing her mother is alive. Ten years later, the grown Anju remains faithful to the teachings of her parents while Zushio has become one of Sansho's trusted henchmen, branding slaves that try to escape. But Anju convinces her brother to flee, to find out whether their parents are still alive.
Once revered as the apex of Japanese cinema, Mizoguchi's fine films have been largely set aside in favor of the more formalistic Ozu and the exciting Kurosawa. Sansho the Bailiff comes near the end of his 90-film career, in the same year that Japanese screens were thrilled by Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Mizoguchi's traditional adaptation begins slowly but becomes more affecting with each new scene, until we're completely immersed in his characters' problems and the values they represent.
Young Zushio's father sends him into an unknown future with the simple message to conduct his life on humanistic lines: "Without mercy, man is like a beast." The father has lost his position by bucking official orders, and his unfortunate family suffers the worst that feudalism has to offer. Tax collectors like Sansho are immune from civil laws and run their properties with slave labor. Anju witnesses her fellow forced laborers dying without medicine or comfort and vows to reunite with her mother. She's quite right when she imagines hearing mother's anguished song from across the ocean: Tamaki, now an enslaved courtesan, has had her hamstrings cut for trying to escape, and must hobble to the shore to sing her song.
Zushio eventually yields to Sansho's authority and joins the slave master's ranks as a thug - trustee. Curiously, although Anju has the inner strength to persevere and inspire her brother to rebel, she loses her courage in his absence. The remainder of Sansho the Bailiff follows Zushio's sad path as he endeavors to right wrongs and carry forward his father's teachings. A small Buddhist idol provides proof of Zushio's birthright to honest officials. It also helps him know his true path: placed in his father's old post, Zushio goes against official edict and acts outside the law to do what is right. Zushio banishes Sansho, frees his slaves and then resigns before his superiors can react. His father's philosophy is validated in just one day.
Sansho the Bailiff's conclusion is an all-too lifelike blend of triumph and tragedy. Zushio has accomplished the impossible but has been unable to prevent the destruction of his family. The prostitute known as Nakagimi turns out to be a younger woman who has inherited his mother's name. Told that his mother is dead, Zushio wanders to the seashore and comes upon a blind and crippled woman who sings a familiar song. The pain we suffer and the good we do are worthwhile, even if the personal rewards remain entirely intangible.
Mizoguchi's film joins his Ugetsu as one of the most beautiful Japanese films ever. The fluid camerawork finds many expressive compositions. The opening walk through the forest dazzles us with the texture of light on water, while the grim kidnapping sequence is marked by pitiless steely grays. Mizoguchi uses the camera crane as much as any American director of westerns, yet we're hardly aware that the camera is floating over compound gates or swooping along with running figures. We're more likely to remember the heart-wrenching character scenes.
Criterion's DVD of Sansho the Bailiff has been given the full Collection treatment, with a fine B&W transfer and an optimized soundtrack; Tamaki's sad song becomes a weird refrain that appears at unexpected moments. Professor Jeffrey Angles' commentary places the film within the context of Ogai Mori's source story and trends in Japanese literature. Disc producer Curtis Tsui oversees new interviews with the film's assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, actress Kyoko Kagawa (Tokyo Story, High and Low, Shall We Dance?) and critic Tadao Sao. A thick booklet accompanying the disc contains a helpful essay by Mark Le Fanu and two different translations of the film's original story.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sansho the Bailiff rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Jeffrey Angles, interviews with critic Tadao Sao, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka and actress Kyoko Kagawa; booklet with essay by Mark Le Fanu and two translations of the source story.
Packaging: plastic and card folder with booklet in card sleeve
Reviewed: May 18, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson