Sansho the Bailiff won the Golden LIon Award in Venice in 1954 and is considered among the finest works of Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi. It also appears among the All-time Best Movie lists.
Is it really that good?
Sansho Dayu, or Sansho the Bailiff is a jidai geki or historical film set in the Heian period of 10th-11th century Japan. At the beginning of the film, Masauji Taira, a provincial Governor, has been forced into exile for the ‘crime’ of standing up for the impoverished peasants . Before he departs, he tells his family to always be true to the principles that have guided his life: ” Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others”, “Without mercy, man is like a beast.”, ” Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.”
Six years later, his wife , Tamaki, son Zushio and daughter,Anju, set out to join him but are betrayed and separated from each other. Tamaki is sold to a brothel owner and the children become the slaves of the brutal Sansho, a bailiff or steward of the Minister of the Right. In the miserable environment of the slave camp, Anju remains true to her father’s principles but Zushio becomes an unfeeling brute as a means of survival. Then one day, there an incident reminds him of what he once was and he escapes the camp in order to search for his mother.
( Spoiler alert; Do not read the italicized portion that follows if you have not watched the film but plan to do so ) In order to delay the pursuit and increase Zushio’s chances of escaping, Anju remains behind . Then, rather be tortured into betraying his destination, she commits suicide . In a touching and supremely poetic scene , she drowns herself. Zushio escapes to Kyoto and meets a high official , an admirer of his father, who elevates him to the governorship which happens to be vacant. Zushio returns to the place of his imprisonment and discovers his sister’s fate. He arrests Sansho ,exiles him and frees the slaves. That night , while celebrating their freedom, the slaves burn down Sansho’s mansion. The next day, Zushio resigns the governorship and sets off to find his mother. At film’s end, he is re-united with her at last though the final scene is as bleak as the rest of the film.
Mizoguchi is considered a ‘feminist’ film maker and it shows in his sympathetic treatment of the female characters. This is not surprising considering his background: he himself was the son of a poor carpenter and ,when he was 17, his mother died and his sister sold as a geisha. .
The title of the movie is misleading because it is not really about Sansho ( in Japanese, the word means Bailiff or steward). Sansho was the title of the original story that the movie is based on. The movie is concerned not so much with the fate of Sansho as with the themes of poverty, freedom and the treatment of women by society. It also explores the effect of genes and environment on one’s character. Zushio becomes harsh and pitiless as a result of his horrific life as a slave but ultimately returns to his true self and lives up to his father’s principles.
The movie is simply told. Critics have admired Mizoguchi’s style : long takes in which the characters are part of their surroundings rather than prisoners of it. . The beginning shot typifies Mizoguchi’s favorite themes. Megalithic monuments shaped like stone breasts push up through the soil reminding us of ancient lives & traditions and the continuity of Time itself. The scene is repeated later when the action jumps 10 years ahead. Symbolism abounds though one has to be extemely perceptive , even see the movie several times, to get it all. There is also a striking element of symmetry. For instance Taro, Sansho’s son, is unable to stomach his father’s actions and runs away to become a priest. At the same time, Zushio goes in the opposite direction forgetting his father’s principles and becoming, temporarily , like Sansho.
I must admit though that , while watching the movie, I was always aware that it was a movie. I was not able to empathise with the characters to the same extent as I did while viewing Redbeard. Part of the reason perhaps was that this was a ‘historical/mythical ‘ tale and I saw them as mythical characters rather than as real people. A bigger reason , I think, is that the characters are not nuanced ; with the exception of Zushio, they are either all good or all bad. I was also surprised by the sudden elevation of Zushio to his important post. Given his long confinement and slavery,it seems unrealistic as does his reversion to his noble roots .
Mizoguchi tugs at our heartstrings as the tale unfolds. The sad fate of the children’s mother and her longing for her children is beautiful expressed in the plaintive song that she sings on the seashore . It is a song that Anju re-hears and which ultimately sets in motion the events that lead to Zushio’s escape and redemption. The ending is in line with Mizoguchi’s underlying themes but I can’t help wishing that it had been a little less bleak. Why are so many Japanese movies so sad ? is it part of the national psyche ?
Overall , this is a very good, even a great, movie. But I don’t know how anyone can compare movies fom different eras and come up with a Top 250 list. Moviemaking has advanced so much over the years that it is unfair to make such comparisons. I remember how awesome Star Wars seemed when it first came out ; today it’s special effects are ho- hum. The way these ratings work : viewers rate a movie on a 10 point scale and the composite score is used to rank the movies. Viewers have not seen all the movies on the list and the ratings are very subjective. As more people vote, the ratings keep changing. Sansho was in 250th place at one time but may have slipped by now. It is a tribute to it that it climbed that high even though it was made more than 50 years ago and is a foreign film about another time, another society. Whether it belongs in the Top 250 is immaterial; Sansho is a movie to savor.