Sansho the Bailiff (Criterion) Review

The Film

Some supposed classic films are a disappointment. I must admit that I have never got what was so amazing about Renoir's La Regle Du Jeu or understood the magic of Chaplin, but these thoughts are tempered with how wrong I was about Fritz Lang until I finally understood his film-making. 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.