October 9, 2007
Sansho the Bailiff: Still a masterwork
Reviewer: Walt Opie
Rating (out of 5): ****
Sansho the Bailiff is one of those rare films so superbly crafted there don't seem to be honorable enough words to describe it. It will make you feel grateful for your own life. This heart-wrenching masterwork, beautifully restored in its black and white glory by Criterion, won Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi his second Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1954. (Incidentally, that's the same year Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai came out--a stellar year for Japanese cinema.)
The film is set in 11th century feudal Japan, where the family of a certain provincial governor suddenly goes from being on top of society to having their lives turned upside down (and kicked while they're down). It all starts when the father, a benevolent ruler by all accounts, is forcibly removed from office and taken away, leaving the mother, Tamaki (played with conviction by Kinuyo Tanaka, who went on to become the first woman director in Japan), and her two children, Zushio and Anju, to fend for themselves. Things go wrong almost immediately when they encounter bandits out in the countryside who split up mother and children, eventually selling the mother into prostitution and the brother and sister into slave labor.
The despicable titular character (Eitarô Shindô) ends up owning both the brother and sister. He is not pleased at first because to him they look like young weaklings, which of course is because they were raised in upper society and never had to work before. "Have no mercy on them," he says to his henchmen.
The kids encounter a man named Taro in the slave camp who gives them new names to hide their real identities. Then he tells them, instead of trying to escape, they should, "Wait until you grow up. Whatever happens (in the meantime), you must endure it."
This is a Buddhist-inspired story, so karma eventually plays a role. There is utter misery and some satisfying redemption as we go along on an emotional rollercoaster. Both Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa, who often played long-suffering women) grow up as slaves and at a certain point Zushio seizes an opportunity to escape. What happens next should remain a surprise, but it includes a sequence of beautifully shot scenes (thanks to cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa) set at a Buddhist monastery. The ending to the film is rather devastating--nothing Disney-esque going on here. Be ready to bow down in appreciation of Kenji Mizoguchi's superior craftsmanship as a filmmaker.
Posted by cphillips at October 9, 2007 1:04 PM