Sansho the Bailiff (1954)
Release Date: August 22nd, 1954 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi Actors: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Eitaro Shindo, Akitake Kono, Masao Shimizu
beautifully constructed film, oddly named after the merciless antagonist and not the overtaxed hero, “Sansho the Bailiff” (called “Sanshô dayû” in its native Japan) is a powerful tale of morality, loss, revenge, and the cataclysmic nature of extreme divergences in warring social classes. It’s a simple story, steeped in tear-jerking atrocities and futility, but also basked in the transcendence of love and hope, with an epic feel that can be attributed not only to the span of time covered, but also to the triumphant full circle traveled by the protagonist and the suffering endured by all on the bloody road to freedom. As one of director Kenji Mizoguchi’s most renowned works, it was honored with awards at the Venice Film Festival, which significantly aided in his projects gaining recognition internationally (along with “Ugetsu” and “The Life of Oharu”).
Set in the Heian period, an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings, Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu), a proud governor in medieval 11th century Japan, is thrown into exile when his noble principles clash with royalty over taxes on rice. His overthrow leads to his wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), her servant Ubatake (Chieko Naniwa), and children Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa), embarking on a search for him six years later. Once on the road, they are immediately tricked by a priestess who has the children sold into slavery and Tamaki sold into prostitution.
Zushio and Anju endure many years of hardship as slaves, working for the ruthless bailiff Sansho (Eitarô Shindô), the manager of the lordship’s manor. Sansho’s kind son Taro (Akitake Kôno), who strongly disagrees with the treatment of the serfs, urges the petrified children to bear the torment, and gives each of them an alternate name to keep their true identities a secret: Zushio becomes Mutsu and his sister becomes Shinobu. As time passes, Mutsu adopts the position of an inured henchman, thoughtlessly carrying out the murder and torture of various slaves at the behest of Sansho. He forgets the basic teachings of his father – “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness” – abandons compassion, and admits only to the futility of hope and prayer.
It’s not until Mutsu and Shinobu are ordered to take a sickly woman into the hills and leave her to die that Shinobu enkindles a spark of humanity out of her coldhearted brother. While gathering materials to build a shelter for the old woman, they break a tree branch, recreating a happier time from their childhood. This potent memory provokes Shinobu to insist that Mutsu escape so that he may pursue the local lord, regain his royalty, and come back to rescue Shinobu and Tamaki.
The notion that people have little sympathy for matters that don’t concern them is gravely broadcast in the film, revealing the depressing inhumanity and grievous injustice of the times. Mutsu acts hastily during his flight, internally battling the difference between doing the right thing and acting against a majority that has the power to crush him – exactly as his father’s nobility was destroyed, causing the examination of righteousness versus repetitive history fueled by chaos and corruption. “Sansho the Bailiff” is saddening, revelatory, and provides no comic relief, but it’s well worth the ride; though marked by woe and adversity throughout, the finale provides a heart-wrenching and affective satisfaction that ranks amongst the greatest resolutions in all of foreign cinema.
– Mike Massie