Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Japan, the Heian period of feudal Japan. An altruistic and benevolent governor is exiled to a far-off region after refusing to provide extra soldiers and raise taxes. His family; his wife Tamaki, his son Zushio and his daughter Anju depart to live with her brother. Their journey crosses a lawless region where bandits and slave traders are known to reside. The family are aided by an elderly woman who provides shelter and finds two men to transport them down river. However they are slave traders who separate the family, selling them into slavery. The children live and work at the estate of the brutal Sansho. His humane son Taro encourages the children to stick it out before thinking about searching for their parents.
As the children reach adulthood Zushio participates in the branding of slaves who attempt to escape. Anju still wants to escape to search for their parents but is discouraged from doing so by Zushio. When Zushio takes a dying slave out of the estate, Anju encourages him to escape with her. Anju distracts the guards, allowing Zushio to get away and faced with torture if caught, she walks into a lake, drowning. Zushio encounters Taro on his journey, who verifies that he is the son of the former governor. Zushio acquires his dead father’s title and sets about abolishing slavery despite much opposition, but discovers his sister is now dead. Relinquishing his position, he searches for his mother, whom he finds, blind and helpless on a tsunami-hit beach and they are reconciled.
The 1950s were the golden age of Japanese cinema, finally reaching the attention of Western critics after decades of unfair obscurity. Kurosawa and Ozu produced their finest works, including ‘Rashomon’, ‘Ikiru’, ‘Tokyo Story’ and ‘Floating Weeds’. Although he had been making films for approximately thirty years, Mizoguchi was also at his most creative, arguably producing his three finest films within just three years between 1952-1954; ‘The Life of Oharu’, ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’ and ‘Sansho the Bailiff’. Such was the impact of Mizoguchi’s run of masterpieces that he was rewarded for all three, in consecutive years, at the Berlin Film Festival, which no film maker previously or has since achieved.
Mizoguchi and his contemporaries were united by their exploration of similar themes and their shared humanist interests. What distinguishes Mizoguchi from both Ozu and Kurosawa is his concept of the suffering of women being caused by the weakness of men. This is a theme that features in ‘Ugetsu Monogatari’, ‘The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums’ and ‘The Life of Oharu’ amongst others as it does here to an extent. The virtuous governor might have noble ambitions but this ultimately destroys his family and unleashes decades of suffering before a kind of reconciliation. The governor’s absence from the entire film reiterates the extent of the pressure placed upon Tamaki to hold things together. Her innate goodness and trust in others are virtues seen as weaknesses in a precarious and dangerous environment and these are ruthlessly exploited by those with more nefarious motives. Mizoguchi never condemns his characters for not adapting to the world they live in. Zushio attempts to gain favour with the regime as the best means of survival, forgetting the lessons learned from his father, that “a man is not a human being without mercy”, but soon recovers his moral compass when it is most required. Despite the violence and brutality of the world, the family is reunited by the close of the film, showing that nothing can ultimately break family bonds.
What also distinguishes the masters of Japanese cinema are their technical approaches to cinema. Ozu was renowned for his “one scene one shot” formula of little camera movement and an objective eye. Kurosawa had a unique and innovative approach, especially in terms of editing, which contributed to the revision of cinema’s language. Mizoguchi was perhaps somewhere in the middle; more formal than Kurosawa but more radical than Ozu. The family’s journey following their banishment is shot with an extended tracking shot, moving from right to left, culminating with an intense close up on the face of Tamaki, confirming how women bear the brunt of the actions of others. During these scenes Mizoguchi impressively contrasts the rural idyll through which the family travel with the warnings of others about bandits and slave dealers. The children seem oblivious to the dangers ahead so it is as if the peaceful world we see is as if seen through their perspective. Mizoguchi also demonstrates a satisfying “less is more” approach with one of the film’s most poignant scenes; the suicide of Anju. He shows her walking into the lake, but crucially cuts to the prayers of the dying slave she assisted, before cutting back to the ripples of the water. We do not need to see the death of Anju; it is made perfectly clear and her death is bestowed a sense of poetry from this arresting image.
‘Sansho the Bailiff’ is one of Mizoguchi’s most compassionate and powerful films. It is interesting that the film is titled as it is, with the emphasis appearing to be on the scarcely visible owner of the estate rather than the family itself (Mizoguchi’s films are often named after the protagonist with whom the director sympathises). Sansho is the encapsulation of the oppressive nature of this society, founded on slavery, which is almost encouraged by the authorities because of the wealth this generates. Sansho and his system of slavery demonstrate the power of the family bond and the moral compass of these children; Zushio initially forgets who he is but ultimately they refuse to let it break them (Anju departs this world on her own terms rather than giving in). ‘Sansho the Bailiff’ is a film that once seen will be hard to forget; such is the film’s power especially captured in the devastating final scene as mother and son reconcile.