HomeClassic Movies‘Sansho the Bailiff’: Kenji Mizoguchi Least Japanese of Japan’s Filmmakers?

‘Sansho the Bailiff’: Kenji Mizoguchi Least Japanese of Japan’s Filmmakers?

Sansho the Bailiff Kenji Mizoguchi
Sansho the Bailiff.

One of the nostra about Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi is that he is ‘the most Japanese of all filmmakers.’ Another is that, compared to his two titanic contemporaries, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, Mizoguchi was the hardest to pin down in a style or genre. Having just watched Sanshô Dayû / Sansho the Bailiff (1954) I can agree with both of the above sentiments.

First, Mizoguchi excels at the jidai-geki (historical drama) genre. Second, whereas Ugetsu Monogatari (the only other Mizoguchi film I’ve seen) is spiritual and poetic, Sansho is worldly and realistic. This despite the fact that the source materials for the film (legends and short fiction) are rife with supernatural overtones.

The Sansho screenplay was written by Fuji Yahiro and was adapted from the legend and a 1915 short story, “Sansho the Steward,” by Ogai Mori. Reputedly, Mizoguchi wanted Sansho to more closely follow the titular character, rather than the brother and sister who actually dominate the film. And while that would have been a more daring choice – the equivalent of focusing on the Big Bad Wolf rather than Little Red Riding Hood – the Daiei Studio’s insistence on exploring the brother and sister tale of Zushio (Masahiko Kato) and Anju (Keiko Enami) allowed Mizoguchi to add layers of psychological depth and realism to what had always been little more than a Japanese fairy tale. That said, the screenplay is outstanding – even if a bit depressing. It reminded me, in its unending emotional declension, of Theo Angelopoulos’s Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow.

The narrative is set in about the 10th or 11th century (its dates are never specified), and is not that complex, but how it is visually portrayed adds much depth to the spare tale.

Sansho opens with the siblings in flight with their mother, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), and an elderly servant, Ubatake (Chieko Naniwa), after six years in exile from the province of Mutsu, once governed by their father, Taira Masauji (Masao Shimizu). He was deposed because he opposed the way his peasants were being treated. The tale veers between the present flight of the family and six years earlier, when the father bestowed upon Zushio a family heirloom, a statuette of Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and this advice: ‘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.’

The family is then offered refuge from a night in the cold – filled with bandits and slave traders – by a Shinto priestess (Kikue Mori). At first, it seems that the priestess is an angel of mercy, even offering the family a trip on a boat to visit their exiled patriarch. Instead, she betrays them to boatsmen who are slavers – the mother ends up on the boat, and becomes a courtesan on Sado Island, while the children, on another boat, are sold as slaves on Sansho the Bailiff’s manor.

The old servant lady is knocked overboard and drowns. While that is a minor moment, it does highlight one of Mizoguchi’s techniques. He fades away from the old lady just before she drowns. It’s as if he has no interest in endings, only the means to them.

Bad critics often make a critical misinterpretation of Sansho the Bailiff at this moment. When we are finally introduced to Sansho (Shindô Eitarô) we see he is clearly cruel and abusive – an Oriental Simon Legree, but we also see him as a servile functionary to his boss, the Minister of the Right, the real owner of the property. Sansho, after all, is just a bailiff for the big man. Yet, many critics see him as both the ultimate evil in the film and as a corrupt character.

The latter interpretation can be taken as true in the sense that Sansho is ethically bankrupt on a personal level, but most critics do not use the word in that regard. Rather, they use it to imply he is an anomaly in the system. Yet, this is clearly not true. Sansho is just doing his job, one which allows him to indulge his sadism – it is the system itself that is corrupt.

Sansho, in fact, is such an efficient master of the manor that the Minister sends other government officials to see how he runs things so that his methods can be exported to other slave manors in the Empire. Thus, against the backdrop of the feudal system, Sansho is not corrupt – he’s the embodiment of merciless capital efficiency. He is an early forerunner to the faceless ‘company man.’

The children are befriended by Sansho’s son, Taro (Akitake Kono), a kind but impotent man, and an older woman, Namiji (Noriko Tachibana), who acts as a surrogate mother for them. Meanwhile, their real mother repeatedly tries to escape from Sado Island, only to be brutalized.

Taro eventually escapes his father’s world to try and change the slave system. He is also the one who gives the children new names – Zushio is called Mutsu-Waka and Anju is called Shinobu – to hide their past.

Ten years pass. Anju (now played by Kyoko Kagawa) still dreams of reuniting with her family, while Zushio (now played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi) hardens and turns cruel to other slaves. When a new slave girl from Sado island is captured, she sings a song of grief that mentions Zushio and Anju. When Anju hears this she realizes it was a song her mother sang, which became popular on Sado island. She now wishes to escape more than ever, but Zushio refuses until they are ordered to dispose of the body of the dying Namiji.

There, reminded of earlier times with their mother, Zushio agrees to escape. Anju says she will stall the guards as long as he takes Namiji, who was to be left to die in the woods. When the guards discover Zushio is gone, they have an old woman watch Anju as they pursue him. The old woman allows Anju to tie her up so she can escape, but Anju drowns herself in a nearby lake so she cannot be forced to betray her brother. Her death scene, which seems unnatural to modern sensibilities, is nonetheless very moving – shot from behind, as Anju slowly descends in the misty lake.

What makes this whole passage work so well is not only that it’s beautifully staged, acted, and shot, but that it is an almost moment by moment (if not exact shot by shot) recapitulation of the earlier passage where the children camp out with their mother and Ubatake before the priestess betrays them to the slavers. This allows the viewer to not only understand what Zushio is feeling when Anju reminds him of the earlier moment, but literally evoke its imagery along with it.

In both passages the duo is in the wild, they break branches from a tree – with Zushio aiding his weaker sister. Earlier, the family heard the calls of wolves, but now the siblings hear the song of their mother. There is a bit of confused logic in the scene when Anju refuses to run with her brother, claiming she’ll slow him down, but then insists he take the ill Namiji. Even so, that can be rationalized as part of Anju’s humanistic bent, as well as her following the dictates of her father’s teachings, something which this scene reawakens in Zushio.

Having seen her brother ‘return’ to himself, Anju’s suicide takes on a more noble ring to it, especially considering that her society did not frown upon the practice. Also, the fact that the death scene is one long shot from behind heightens the tension the viewer feels because a) it takes a while for Anju to descend, and b) we never get to see her face and the horror she must be feeling. Imagining it is more terrifying than showing it.

Meanwhile, Zushio takes refuge in a nearby Imperial temple, where the local priest, his old mentor Taro, now bald, resides. There he aids Namiji with some medicine, and tells Zushio that his quest to free the slaves is likely doomed, for Taro had failed years earlier. Whereas Taro is shown as nothing but kind, he is also implicitly indicted as a benign enabler of the corrupt system of slavery. Indeed, Buddhism’s whole idea of simply “being” is shown as a cowardly reaction to evil. Taro sums up his benign complicity with this warning to Zushio: ‘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.’

Through a series of coincidences, Zushio makes it to Kyoto. There, he’s befriended by the local Imperial head, Prime Minister Morozane Fujiwara (Ken Mitsuda), who makes him governor of Tango province, where the Sansho manor lies. Ironically, the PM only listens to Zushio because of his past status and connection to his own clan. Before this was revealed to him, Zushio was just another peasant he ignored.

In his new post, Zushio immediately bans slavery on government and private lands – for Sansho’s manor is private property, and he only runs it for the Imperial Minister of the Right, who also resides in Kyoto. When Sansho refuses Zushio’s orders, and has his overlords take down the governor’s decrees, Zushio arrests and bans Sansho from the province, freeing the slaves, who burn down the manor house, and joy at their freedom. Zushio, however, learns that both his sister and father, whom he has not seen for sixteen years, are dead.

Initially, Zushio’s advisors feel that his edict will hurt him, but after banishing Sansho they grow a deep respect for him. They are crushed when he resigns his post in order to travel to Sado island to find his mother. He finds a courtesan with the same alias his mother used, but she is too young. He then comes upon a beach where he has learnt his mother was killed in a tsunami two years earlier. He wanders until he finds an old blind woman singing the Zushio and Anju song. He realizes it is his mother, who rejects him as a trickster, but is then convinced he has returned.

He weeps when he tells them his father and sister are dead and that he has not always followed his father’s teachings. His mother says he is speaking nonsense, for had he not followed his father’s edicts they would not be reunited. The camera then pans off to the left and looks over the beach and the sea, things far larger and grander than the human element.

Sansho the Bailiff truly evokes human growth potential at a root level. Zushio feels, through much of the film, that it is Anju who is the force he must rely on, yet, it is only after her death that he is emboldened enough to do all the courageous things he does.

As a plus, there’s the stellar Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography. Rarely does a film so totally rely on a single element as Sansho does. In Mizoguchi’s film, the diagonal placement of spears, branches, and other objects are used to bisect the screen, while many shades of gray suggest color where there is none. In a sense, Sansho reminds me of a black-and-white version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Desert, which used color in an emotive and narrative way the way Miyagawa uses gray shadings in this film.

There is little wonder that Sansho the Bailiff won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival – the third straight Mizoguchi film to do so, following Life of Oharu and Ugetsu Monogatari.

The Criterion Collection DVD is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The print is nearly flawless, save for a few scratches at the opening and closing credits. The disc also contains interviews with film critic Tadao Sato, Mizoguchi’s first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and the actress who played the grown Anju, Kyoko Kagawa.

There is a film commentary track by Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles, which is solid, focusing more on the historical roots of the myth and how Mizoguchi parallaxed his film against that past. Angles is at his best in this aspect, but falters and gets a bit didactic when trying to discuss the more cinematic aspects of the film. At his worst, he is obviously reading from a prepared text rather than reacting to the images onscreen.

The package is rounded out by a booklet with an essay, “The Lessons of Sansho,” by film scholar Mark Le Fanu, and two print versions of the legend: Ogai Mori’s 1915 short story and an earlier mythic tale.

In just the two films I’ve seen thus far, Mizoguchi shows himself far more daring in both subject matter and style than either of his two great rivals, Ozu and Kurosawa. This alone does not mean or imply that he is the greater filmmaker, but it does stake out a territory that is his alone. There is, indeed, more than just one way to achieve greatness, and Mizoguchi seems to have tried many. Still, his success seems hardly of the ‘throw a thousand darts and get one bulls-eye’ sort.

Sansho the Bailiff is a great film because of its realism – to the point of going to the opposite extreme of a typical Hollywood ending – and also because almost every second of the film serves a purpose that is later elaborated upon. It is a flower whose opening bud seems eternal, and whose interior can only be sniffed. Thus, I’d have to rate it a bit above Ugetsu Monogatari, as great as that film was.

That’s because watching a film like Sansho the Bailiff makes one not only a happier viewer, but a better person. No, I do not mean that in the trite sense of so many p.c. commentaries – ‘its humanist message of kindness over cruelty will ennoble you’ – but in the sense that all great art makes its audience better, for it does not merely tell you something the art and/or artist feels the audience should know, but it also stimulates a greater intellect by forcing the viewer to cogitate upon it not only as it unfolds but long afterwards.

In this way, the artwork aids not only its own existential meaning but that of all other art to be encountered after it. It is thus truly transcendental, beyond the hokey way the term is usually defined. Sansho the Bailiff achieves this for it moves at multiple levels of consciousness – the emotive, the intellectual, and that indefinable other that exists in-between – to move its percipient. It is a political film that, unlike both old and modern Hollywood p.c. schlock (e.g., Crash), shows with great subtlety how dilemmas great and small are resolved.

Japanese or not, Mizoguchi left a masterful work of art for all of us to grow on.

© Dan Schneider

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

Sanshô Dayû / Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Director: Kenji Mizoguchi. Screenplay: Fuji Yahiro; from the old legend and Ogai Mori’s 1915 short story “Sansho the Steward.” Cast: Shindô Eitarô, Kyoko Kagawa, Yoshiaki Hanayagi.

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