SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954)

  • Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Writers: Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda, based on the on the short story by Mori Ogai
  • Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Kyoko Kagawa, Eitaro Shindo, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Ichiro Sugai, Ken Mitsuda, Masahiko Tsugawa, Masao Shimizu, and Chieko Naniwa
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#62), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#79), Shown at 1954 Venice International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

Watching Sansho the Bailiff made me very quickly realize that I basically wanted to watch every movie Kenji Mizoguchi had directed. The longer it went on, the less it made me want to watch this particular movie again. There are weepies, and then there is whatever this story is. The story is set in Ancient Japan, but there are no heroic samurai to be found. Instead, this is a melodrama that really leans into its emotional beats. Interestingly, it puts a heavy emphasis on the perspectives of its female characters, as Mizoguchi movies tended to do. The lives of these women may get worse and worse until they die, basically, but at least they use their voices in the meantime. Compare that to a lot of Kurosawa’s filmography, for example.

I had heard Mizoguchi’s name thrown around over the years, but never really sat down with his movies. Sometimes these things are subtle, but within ten minutes I could tell what the “big deal” was. Despite being in black and white, basically every frame of this movie might as well be a painting. My wife is the gamer of the two of us, and recently played through a game set in Medieval Japan called Ghost of Tsushima. In the game, your character can run through fields of tall, white flowers swishing in the wind. That image is straight out of this movie. I actually learned in the Criterion Channel extras that it wasn’t an actual field, Mizoguchi had each flower individually planted for the shot. He seems like an interesting dude. One other tidbit was that, if an actor had trouble saying a line, he’d have the screenwriter come on set, write the line on a blackboard, and say, “If you didn’t write such a terrible line, Tanaka-san [or whoever] wouldn’t have had a problem.”

The original title was Sansho Dayu, which is actually how it was marketed in much of the West except for North America, and may translate as something closer to Sansho the Steward. The story opens with a popular governor being removed from his post for being too lax on the populace. His wife and children follow him into exile, but the kids are kidnapped into slavery under an old guy with a truly awful beard named, you guessed it, Sansho (Eitaro Shindo). He likes to brand the forehead of anyone who tries to escape. The kids grow up, and eventually the daughter (Kyoko Kagawa) sacrifices herself so the son (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) can escape. He appeals to the Emperor’s Advisor (Ken Mitsuda), who decides that he should be Governor in his father’s place. As Governor, the son tries to abolish slavery in order to free his sister, but discovers she’s dead and then resigns. He goes to find his mother, who is a sad, blind old lady who spent most of her life as a prostitute. Then the movie ends. So that’s fun!

I am not alone in my assessment of the actual plot of this movie, which even its dearest admirers online seem to admit is a heavy lift. In 2006, Anthony Lane, lead critic for the New Yorker, wrote the following: “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.” I think this sort of adoration at least partially stems from the style that suffuses the whole thing. Mizoguchi is particularly a fan of long shots, not in a super showy way but just in keeping the camera on his actors instead of making a bunch of cuts. Maybe the most powerful scene comes when the daughter commits suicide so Sansho can’t torture her to figure out where her brother went. She calmly walks into the water in one long shot, slowly disappearing until she leaves only ripples.

Perhaps I have a heart of stone, or more likely it is just this particular reliable tear-jerker (a mother separated from her children) does very little for me. I did cry when the Walruses started jumping off of cliffs during one of the recent David Attenborough documentaries because of global warming, but this movie, nothing. So my understanding of what critics mean when they call Sansho “the most devastatingly moving of films” is more intellectual than emotional, let’s say? But as I said I found myself appreciating the technique, the shots used, the way the story was told, more than the story itself.

Anyway, I am discovering that Kenji Mizoguchi made movies for like thirty years so maybe I am not about to watch all of his movies right this second but that does sound super interesting. In the meantime I am hoping I will find some of them I am more into than this one. The problem really is that I realized about half an hour in that whatever the most ironically terrible thing to happen, in an Alanis Morissette sense, would be what would happen. Also, why is this movie named after the villain who is like four scenes? Riddle me that, Criterion Channel!

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