Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)


This is my second film by Kenji Mizoguchi, and to even try to compare it to my first would be incredibly unfair.  “Ugetsu” was such a surreal, haunting, sublime, and beautiful experience that, even despite some overacting (traditional of that era’s Japanese cinema) and other minor flaws i’d just about call it a perfect film-watching experience.  “Sansho the Bailiff” is not.  The overacting that I was able to overlook in “Ugetsu” is even more visibly in full force in “Sansho” and cannot be overlooked (a case in point was when the protagonist Zushio literally crawls on all fours to gain an audience with an important minister while screaming and pleading – I had to lower the volume so my eardrums wouldn’t explode), and combine that overacting with some plot points that are beyond histrionic, and much of “Sansho the Bailiff” is melodrama defined.  I’ve never been a fan of melodrama (and that’s putting it lightly), and it’s melodrama that practically defines “Sansho”…and yet I bought into it.  Credit Mizoguchi’s impeccable craft as a director (right up there with the transcendent “Ugetsu”), or the simple fact that you’d have to be a heartless/curmudgeonly Nazi to not sympathize with the plight of a mother and her two children being separated by slavers, but “Sansho” makes exaggerated melodrama work to create an imperfect, but undeniably powerful, experience.

A basic plot description won’t win any subtlety awards: a kindly governor is sent into exile for defying an unjust order, and his wife and two young children must flee into the wilderness.  One morning, the mother is duped into losing the kids – brother and sister are sold as slaves to the cruel Sansho the Bailiff, and mother becomes a prostitute, growing more and more dejected and obsessed with seeing her kids again by the day.  

And the histrionic touches don’t end there: you get the father telling the son Zushio “without mercy, man is not a human being,” and later a priest lamenting to a fugitive Zushio that man is filled with greed and corruption.  It’s stuff like this that I absolutely hate, when a film’s moralistic themes and moral quandaries are shoved down my throat via motivational quotables, and I almost got sick to my stomach as soon as “Sansho” had this from the get-go (at the expense of proper pacing at the beginning – I really had no idea what was going on at the outset 😦 ).  But then just take in what happens to these characters as we go along, and the sheer sense of agony that presides over everything, and I dare you not to be repulsed by Sansho’s treatment of his slaves, or pitying of the pathetic state of that mother once she’s separated from her children, or moved by Anju’s sacrifice allowing her brother to make his escape.  And really, it all comes down to Mizoguchi’s direction.  I definitely cringed more than once as select slaves received Sansho’s signature punishment of forehead-branding (once by Zushio himself, who’s grown into Sansho’s most trusted lackey…in a movie with a few too many plot omissions, which is surprising considering it’s two hours long, I would’ve liked to see the relationship between the cruel Sansho and this boy he’s molded over ten years expanded upon)…and yet we never see the branding itself.  The camera just keeps rolling, watching the reactions of the people around the poor sap getting branded – their shocked and dismayed reaction, and the shrill screams from below, is more stomach-churning than an image of the branding itself.  We see Zushio and Anju’s mother, pathetic in her obsessive weeping for her children as she crawls on a cliff overlooking the sea, singing that song that’ll resonate throughout the entire film and eventually spur her children into action – the acting is beyond over-the-top, but the camera simply regards her and subtly follows her, letting this poor woman air out her deep grief.  It’s heartbreaking.  Or there’s the cold but active efficiency inside Sansho’s manor, or Zushio and Anju’s rushed and on-the-spot plot to get him out of there, and perhaps the most tragic and moving of all, an intimate meeting between estranged parent and child on an abandoned beach.  Each of these scenes are in completely different contexts and represent either chaos or desperation or tragedy or reconciliation, but each is still regarded with the same eye of the signature Mizoguchi camera: as few cuts as possible, and relatively stationary, following the vital action very subtly.  The director is letting the characters and their actions do all the talking: the camera, like the audience, is just there to soak it in.

OK, so “Sansho”‘s atmosphere and set design don’t evoke the same otherworldly experience as “Ugetsu,” but why should the two even be compared in the first place, just ‘cuz they have the same man at the helm?  “Sansho” deals with very different material, but Mizoguchi’s artistry still shines.  If melodramatic plot elements and performances are more prominent here than in “Ugetsu” (there I go comparing them again 😦 ), that’s all the more reason to feel the burden of this family’s lamentable situation even further.  Wonderfully minimalistic direction and cinematography, along with exaggerated performances that would otherwise be uncalled for, basically cancel each other out.  Articulating the emotional weight of “Sansho the Bailiff” are a hobbled mother’s weeping, a young man and woman’s quiet desperation to escape their lot in life while putting up with it (maybe a bit too willingly in the case of Zushio), and the song that bonds them together over a great distance.



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