Sansho Dayu/Gion Bayashi Review

We have recently covered the Criterion disc of Sansho the Bailiff and the film part of this review is the same as posted here.

The Films

Sansho Dayu
A few years ago I remember sitting with an indulgent friend as I made disparaging noises about going to watch The Life of Oharu and, sadly, successfully winning the debate on that occasion. A little time later my mind was changed about Mizoguchi when I saw Sansho the Bailiff on an old BFI VHS tape. Sure it was unashamedly sentimental, but it spoke about a world where exploitation and crimes against people not seen as human beings, especially women, were a fact of life. I saw it as just as relevant to current times as it must have seemed in post World War two Japan, it was a film about how humans can respond to oppression by either becoming part of that crime or fighting against it. That seemed to me a lesson the human race still needed to learn.

"Without mercy, man is like a beast"

Set in the Heian period of Japan's history (794 to 1185 AD), Sansho Dayu, follows an exiled governor's family as war and oppression tears them apart. The governor is a prototype humanist who believes in his responsibility to his subjects and fights the military's desire for higher taxes to fund wars and their further suggestions of martial means to keep the starving population in check. Aware that he is powerless to stop the military, the governor passes his beliefs on to his very young son, Zushio, and urges his family to escape to safety. His wife, Tamaki, journeys with the children Zushio and his sister, Anju, to her brother in Iwashiro. We join them again six years later as they must leave when Tamaki's brother marries and the family are unable to find a room for the night on their next passage. The children help to create a shelter in the open night air but a priestess appears offering a roof over their heads and travel in the morning. The next day they are taken to the boatmen and the mother is separated from her children as the family is kidnapped and taken as slaves. Tamaki is taken to Sado and sold as a courtesan, whilst the children are taken to the notorious estate of Sansho the steward in Tango province for hard labour. Once there, they witness the brutality of the steward, he brands slaves on the forehead if they try to escape and leaves the ill and aged to die when they are no more use to him. The children are helped by Taro, the steward's son, who is impressed when he hears the governor's words as repeated by Zushio. He renames the kids to protect their identity and leaves his father's world to become a monk telling the kids to grow up before they try to escape. The years pass, ten of them, and whilst Anju remembers her father's words, Zushio becomes cynical and reasons that he should not fight Sansho but gain position as a trusted subject. To do this he is willing to carry out the orders of Sansho even if they involve branding a seventy year old man. Ordered to dispose of a dying woman, Zushio and Anju find themselves chopping wood like they had for their mother years before and the realisation prompts Zushio to urge his sister to escape. She convinces him to do so on his own and tells him to go the Buddhist temple nearby. Zushio takes the dying woman with him and, unknown to her brother, his sister sacrifices herself rather than compromise her brother during inevitable torture. Zushio plans to visit the emperor's adviser but finds himself arrested, but the adviser remembers his father and the keepsake that Zushio has with him. The adviser makes Zushio the new governor of Tango and gives Zushio orders to not interfere with Sansho. Zushio won't be dissuaded and plans to follow his father's example and reunite his family.

Sansho the Bailiff is a melodrama and the acting to western eyes may seem excessive or theatrical but it is a passionate piece about slavery and exploitation which puts modern viewers in the place of the slaves of it's historical period. We are asked to share the despair of having your family taken from you and being unable to do anything other than the people who have bought you tell you to do. It is a film about the evil of complete dominance of one individual over others, it is a film that in 1954 must have reminded Japanese audiences of both their defeat to the allies in the war and the crimes that their former regime was accused of. To modern audiences, this film becomes a larger fable about unjust oppression and basic human rights and the terror of war and poverty. The film also charts the ravages caused to this formerly well off family because of a world where human beings are bought and sold and justice does not exist. Zushio's family can never be the same after its experiences and he learns the importance of not collaborating with evil but standing up for virtue. Zushio will regain power in the film but he can't exercise this authority according to both his values and the instructions from his superiors and rather than perpetuate evil he chooses to act against slavery and give up his elevated status.

For its time, this is a remarkably frank film. Prostitution and extreme cruelty are not shown explicitly but they are apparent. There are numerous atrocities in the film such as when Tamaki tries to escape Sado and her tendons are cut to stop her from running and resisting her fate. The pervasiveness of cruelty is seen as being something that can take over the best of men, such as Taro and Zushio, and that it is a difficult road to get off once you are on it. This cruelty seems particularly harsh as we begin the film with the example of the benevolent governor and witness the love in his family for each other and their fellow men, and it is this trusting attitude that causes that family to end up as slaves. The very end of the film is little in the way of consolation as the crimes against the world and this family are so great that the cost of being reconciled is a fearful one.

One of the best of the many great films that Mizoguchi made, Sansho Dayu bears its makers name in its use of long takes, perfect studio work and art design, and the superb score of Fumio Hayasaka. The cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa captures brilliant painting like compositions and displays careful use of the full frame, he ensures that the meticulous costume design is not lost in the black and white photography and that the freedom given to the actors is followed and supported. There are very few films better than Sansho Dayu and it is always a pleasure to revisit it and appreciate it once more.

Gion Bayashi
Made between Sansho Dayu and Ugestsu, Gion Bayashi was originally intended as an updating of Mizoguchi's earlier film Sisters of the Gion. Instead, the film became a star vehicle for Ayako Wakao and the hard bitten story of survivalism of the earlier film was replaced by a tale of sisterly camarederie in the world of the Geisha. It would be pushing credulity to claim that the resulting film is one of Mizoguchi's finest and the joys of taking the film in are largely due to the director, cast and crew's professionalism rather than any intriguing premise or screenplay. The changes Mizoguchi made to his project so that it could accommodate Wakao meant that the film lacked the poignancy of similar subject matter such as the Life of Oharu, and that the film narrows its target to the relatively safe ground of business corruption and sexual assault.

The unchallenging subject matter may create a less than enthralling product, but the Mizoguchi virtues of precision and excellence in the performances and presentation are still apparent. Michiyo Kogure, who would also star for Ozu and Kurosawa alongside several more of Mizoguchi's films, has the more interesting role as the senior Geisha, Miyoharu, who takes in and tutors Wakao's more naive Eiko. Eiko is a victim of circumstances with her mother dying in poverty, her father going out of business and her uncle on the prowl to take advantage of this 16 year old. Her only escape is to train to be a Geisha, yet even this is beyond her finances and Miyoharu ends up borrowing money from Okimi to introduce the young woman once her training is complete. Throughout, the character of Okimi acts as an obvious plot device to create conflict for Miyoharu and Eiko and as the agent of their subjugation. This means that when circumstances force prostitution on the two women, their honour is left intact and they are shown as victims of a cruel world.

Wakao is rather winsome as Eiko with a few rare moments of interest when she uses her training to find out about women's rights, but overall she is merely a sweet victim whom Miyoharu must first indoctrinate as a Geisha and then grow to protect from the cruelty around her. Miyoharu is the self sacrificing maternal figure who throws herself away to keep Eiko pure, and she is probably the only satisfying character in the whole film as the rest of the cast are a mixture of shrews, malingerers, and venal men. This obvious characterisation allows the audience clear identification with the two women, but makes for a rather predictable experience. Being a modern day setting, the famous Mizoguchi meticulousness is less noticeable and as good as the cinematography from Kazuo Miyagawa is, the flourishes of long takes are barely seen. Overall the impression is of a well produced genre film, but nothing more.

Gion Bayashi is a welcome addition to DVD and Mizoguchi completists will lap it up, others will be less impressed.

The Discs

Eureka present the two films on individual double layer discs with transfers in the original academy ratio. The weaker of the transfers is undeniably Gion Bayashi which has clearly been taken from a print showing a lot of wear and tear. This means lines present throughout and a lack of stability in the image at times. Care has been taken to make the transfer sharp with well graded contrast without resorting to excessive contrast boosting, and given the quality of the print this has been well transferred. The transfer for Sansho Dayu is a thing of beauty with excellent strong contrast, fine detail and a lack of imperfections on the print. For owners of the existing fine Criterion disc, I compare the two prints below:



The Criterion disc is unquestionably darker than this Eureka release but both seem as detailed and well restored. I suppose it's a question of personal taste, but on this occasion I prefer the Eureka disc for the lighter appearance.

The audio tracks are less impressive with both having constant low levels of background noise throughout, and the audio track on the Criterion disc of Sansho is definitely superior to that provided here. Distortion is never really a problem and dialogue is always clear but the age of the raw materials is apparent on both soundtracks.

Both films come with introductions from Tony Rayns. Shot in black and white with him talking direct to the camera and without notes, Rayns is a very engaging speaker with his own take on Mizoguchi. He makes clear that he is only trying to create context for the films and proceeds to explain these films and their place in Mizoguchi's later career and work with Daiei. He talks about the surprise that Mizoguchi's co-writer Yoshitaki Yoda expressed that the child hating director wanted to make an adaptation of Sansho given its infant heavy plot, and he talks about his empathy for prostitutes and his predilection for them as well. It is rather easy to enjoy Rayns' thoughts on the films, even if he is dismissive of Mizoguchi's later career, and these are excellent introductions. Gion Bayashi is also presented with the original trailer and a teaser.

The discs also come with an eighty page booklet like the Criterion release of Sansho Dayu. First up in the booklet is a piece by Robin Wood on the director's cinema, particularly his later films, where he considers the use of long takes and compares the virtues of Ugetsu and Sansho Dayu. The article is a little dry and academic but its advocacy for Sansho Dayu is well thought through. There are two pieces adapted from Mark Le Fanu's excellent book, Mizoguchi and Japan, dealing with each film in turn. The piece on Sansho appeared in a slighly re-written form on the Criterion release which emphasisesd slavery and civil rights where here the piece concentrates on the source material and the adaptation. Le Fanu's piece on Gion Bayashi compares it with its pre-war sister picture and judges it less radical whilst celebrating Kogure's performance. Ogai Mori's version of the original tale of Sansho is included here in its entirety, although the Criterion's inclusion of the oral history is not duplicated. The final piece is another excerpt from Le Fanu's book with Mizoguchi talking about his view of Geisha and prostitution, and particularly his knowledge of the Gion area. Mizoguchi's comments are illustrative of his extensive research but guarded all the same with the only admisssion about the nature of this trade being that he likes "plump" women. The booklet is well illustrated with many stills from the films.


Sansho is one of my favourite films and pretty much any film included with it is going to suffer from comparison. This is especially the case with Gion Bayashi which is basically Mizoguchi paying the bills. The Criterion release of Sansho is probably the best DVD release I've seen this year but Eureka's rivals it, only losing out because of the plethora of extras on the R1. Those who don't have the Criterion disc will find an excellent release here and will get the added bonus of Gion Bayashi. Fine work from Eureka.

8 out of 10
7 out of 10
6 out of 10
5 out of 10


out of 10