Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, KyÃ´ko Kagawa
Synopsis: In mediaeval Japan a compassionate governor is sent into exile. His wife and children try to join him, but are separated, and the children grow up amid suffering and oppression.
Sansho the Bailiff, Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi’s powerful story of loss and suffering, possesses one of the most hauntingly beautiful shots in movie history. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, in its dreamlike composition, its calm tranquillity. It’s a suicide scene in which one of his characters glides gracefully into a lake, their movement causing gentle ripples. The shot is framed by the overhanging branches of trees that border the lake. Mizoguchi cuts away for a few moments before returning to the lake, and now the character has disappeared, leaving behind a few gentle ripples that slowly dissolve. In a story filled with tragedy it is a shot of sublime beauty that links human suffering with nature, suggesting the transience of one, the permanence of the other. Together with Ozu and Kurosawa, Mizoguchi is the third of Japan’s three greatest directors, and Sansho the Bailiff is probably his greatest work.
The film takes place in 11th Century feudal Japan. Young Zushio (Masahiko Kato) and Anju (Keiko Enami) are the children of a kindly governor forced into exile for his compassionate treatment of the peasants under his rule. Together with their mother and a family servant, the children embark on a long trek to be re-united with their father. But the journey is a hazardous one, through a country in turmoil, and through which roam gangs of bandits. Unable to find lodgings one night, the family are grateful to take refuge with an aged priestess who arranges for a boat to take them the rest of the way. But, to their horror, the women are separated from the children and sold to be courtesans, while the children are sold to the slave-master Sansho (Eitaro Shindo), who sets them to work in his prison camp.
Ten years later, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), now fully grown, are still slaving for Sansho. He’s a harsh, unyielding taskmaster, the embodiment of the uncaring and thoughtless cruelty that imposes itself on undeserving lives. Those caught attempting to escape are branded with a symbol on their forehead, while those who grow too ill or weak to work are dumped in the mountains to die. Under Sansho’s rule, Zushio, who was taught by his father that without mercy man is like a beast, and that all men are born equal, has lost sight of those ideals, and even carries out the branding of those who try to escape. His sister, however, remains pure, untarnished by the harshness of their life, and still dreams of being reunited with their mother.
One day, a young girl from the island of Sado, on which their mother is forced into a life of prostitution, arrives at the prison camp. She doesn’t know Zushio and Anju’s mother, but sings a sad song which mentions their names. Encouraged by the fact that their mother is still alive, they determine to escape and find her…
The beauty of Mizoguchi’s compositions and the resilience, constancy and bravery of its tragic heroes and heroines somehow manage to overcome the unremitting sadness of the film’s story. While there is no happy ending, Sansho the Bailiff ends on a hopeful note that defies all that has gone before. The human spirit has the fortitude to overcome any unjust cruelty that befalls it, and Mizoguchi draws on Zushio and Anju’s tragic tale to illustrate this message, while somehow managing to simultaneously break our hearts. If you can watch this movie without being profoundly touched by its story, its beauty, and its inspirational belief in the human spirit you surely must have a heart of stone.
(Reviewed 28th July 2012)