I’m a big fan of Japanese samurai movies—I collected every one that the Criterion Collection offers so far; The Samurai Trilogy, The Sword of Doom, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Rebel Samurai box set, Ran, etc, etc. I haven’t gotten very into the other film facets of Japanese cinema but I picked up Sansho the Bailiff because I thought it was another epic samurai-period piece. To my surprise, Sansho was definitely not the movie I thought it was. This movie brought about an inspiration that very few filmmakers are able to accomplish, but veteran director Kenji Mizoguchi encapsulates all of film’s finest elements on screen.
The same year Akira Kurosawa finished his masterpiece, Seven Samurai, Kenji Mizoguchi released Sansho the Bailiff, which like Seven Samurai was an epic period piece that explored and dissected the depths of the human condition. This movie brought about an inspiration that very few filmmakers are able to accomplish, but Mizoguchi brings with him his directorial wisdom and vision to make the audience part of the film’s experience.
Set in the Heian period (794 – 1185 A.D.), this historical piece (jidai-geki) takes place in an age where Confucianism and many other Chinese influences were at their peak, and because of this saw tremendous contributions within the arts, especially poetry and literature. Throughout the film, Mizoguchi does an extraordinary job of conveying these sentiments through the dialogue and the emotional hardships Zushio and Anju go through. Although nothing is explicitly explained to the audience, it becomes painfully evident throughout the film that this is an inescapable tragedy.
The story begins as an honorable governor is forced into exile from his village, but not before making his children promise to remember his teachings of principles and morality. His wife and children (Zushio and Anju) are sent to live with his brother but several years later they are captured and the children are sold into slavery. The film then depicts the awful treatment the children are subjected to as they grow up slaves at an estate run by Sansho, a bailiff. As they grow up, their paths begin to separate more and more—Anju retains her father’s teachings while Zushio represses them, considering only how to survive. Zushio adopts the nature of the bailiff, void of regret and morals, but his newfound authority leads him only to find that he can’t escape his ultimate fate.
The contrast of the film shows the solitary fate of the mother compared to the brutal nature of the exiled son. In the final scene, the blind mother is only concerned with what happened to her daughter, feeling that her son had died long ago. Mizoguchi talks to his audience without words—his musical score permeates through difficult scenes while others are filled with the silent ambiance of his masterful storytelling. What’s more, his long and difficult shots allow you to see the incredible beauty that’s engulfed by symbolism—in Mizoguchi’s case, water seems to be a heavy influence, providing both grief and tranquility.
Mizoguchi proved his mastery of the jidai-geki genre in previous efforts, from The 47 Ronin to Ugetsu, which provides the setting for nearly half of his post-war films. Dealing with increasing control and censorship in pre-war Japan, Mizoguchi found that a period piece was the only type of film the Japanese would allow him to make. Experiencing this during the making of The 47 Ronin, Mizoguchi recalls, “We were virtually forced to make it.”
Overall, Sansho shows Mizoguchi as a master auteur, who has a unique vision in storytelling and visuals, but like Kurosawa believed, making a samurai film was not a skill Mizoguchi possessed. According to Kurosawa, he didn’t understand the Samurai emotion in Ugetsu and The 47 Ronin, citing that 47 Ronin even lacked the vital final samurai battle scene. Although Kurosawa makes a valid point, their directing styles in samurai period pieces are vastly different. Mizoguchi seemed more concerned about women in society compared to a Kurosawa continuously focused on his male main characters and their own personal battles, whether external or internal. While Sansho doesn’t really fit into the classification of a samurai film, I would argue that samurai emotion showed through its characters regardless, starting with the governor’s code of honor, all the way to the tragic final scene of mother and son reunited all too late.
Besides the obvious genius of the film, the way in which Criterion restored this film, as they do with virtually every one, looked marvelous. Sansho was presented in its original aspect ratio, 1:33:1, which was digitally transferred in high definition—created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. They also cleaned up the image quality by removing dirt and scratches from the print, so watching this on a blu-ray player was really enjoyable, even for a film that was made in 1954.
This picture is a definite must see for any film enthusiast, make sure to enjoy the little nuances that Mizoguchi apparently enjoyed creating, from the score to the acting to the story. Criterion released this title as spine #386 which comes as one disc, featuring video interviews with critic Tadao Sato, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and actress Kyoko Kagawa on the making of the film, along with a 75 page booklet featuring an essay by Mark Le Fanu and two versions on the story which the movies were based upon—Ogal Mori’s 1915 “Sansho Dayu,” and a written form of an earlier oral variation, in a new English translation. Invest in this one.
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