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Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Sanshô dayû (original title)
Not Rated | | Drama | 1955 (USA)
In medieval Japan, a compassionate governor is sent into exile. His wife and children try to join him, but are separated, and the children grow up amid suffering and oppression.



(short story "Sanshô dayû"), (screenplay) | 1 more credit »

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Cast overview, first billed only:
Yoshiaki Hanayagi ...
Sanshô dayû
Akitake Kôno ...
Masao Shimizu ...
Ken Mitsuda ...
Prime Minister Fujiwara
Kazukimi Okuni ...
Yôko Kosono ...
Kimiko Tachibana ...
Minister of Justice
Teruko Ômi ...
Masahiko Kato ...
Young Zushio
Keiko Enami ...
Young Anju
Bontarô Akemi ...


In mediaeval Japan a compassionate governor is sent into exile. His wife and children try to join him, but are separated, and the children grow up amid suffering and oppression. Written by David Levene <D.S.Levene@durham.ac.uk>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


A film of unparalleled beauty by the great Japanese Master Kenji Mizoguchi




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Release Date:

1955 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Legend of Bailiff Sansho  »

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Sound Mix:

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


This film, like several films by director Kenji Mizoguchi from this period, was widely praised in both Japan and the West for its smoothly flowing camera work. But these camera movements were, in fact, planned and blocked by his great cameraman, Kazuo Miyagawa, rather than by the director, who gave Miyagawa free rein in his use of the camera. See more »


Taro: Even children as young as you are sold and bought, treated like animals, and nobody questions it. What a horrible world.
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Referenced in The Thin Red Line (1998) See more »

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User Reviews

The transient world
9 November 2011 | by See all my reviews

Lately I have been puzzling over Mizoguchi. I have been captivated every time by a heart of reflective images, but have had to work to unearth these against what is usually acclaimed about him. In simple terms, I think what is so vital about Mizoguchi has been obscured by precisely what has given rise to his reputation here in the West.

I think the mistake lies in evaluating Mizoguchi within the limits of what James Quandt wrote about him for the centenary retrospective: "Mizoguchi is cinema's Shakespeare, its Bach or Beethoven, its Rembrant, Titian or Picasso." That is not quite so, of course. But here in the West we have understood images and the world from them in terms of theater; we expect a grand stage where destiny is revealed by conflict. We expect to be moved or educated, to have our heartstrings tugged from outside. We expect an irrational world to be rationalized and given coherence to as a narrative. Mizoguchi does all those things some would say masterfully, and it's under those terms that we have evaluated him; a profound humanist, powerful elegies, social critique.

But in the Eastern world, in our case Japan, they have understood images in the light of the practice of seeing. They have chronicles, myth, stories, all these things that we have also used to narrate our world and which Mizoguchi works from. But they also have their cessation, adopted from Buddhist China.

We have poorly understood this tranquility as a matter of simply aesthetic consideration, this must explain why comments on Mizoguchi's visual prowess rest with vague mentions of 'lyricism'. We expect beauty from representation, an illustrative beauty. Indicative of this loss in translation comes as early as Van Gogh when he copied 'The Plum Garden at Kameido' for just its idyllic scenery.

It is that abstraction from the Buddhist eye refined on the Noh stage or the painter's scroll that interests me in Mizoguchi, himself a converted Buddhist near the end of his life.

So beneath histrionics we can easily process as conventional tragedy, there are powerful karmas at work powering life from one world to the next, here about brother and sister reborn from nobility to forced labor and out again. There is painterly space cultivated with the mournful beauty of transience. There are soft edges, clear reflections.

So not an aspiration to just formal beauty, but a way of cultivating images embedded with the practice of seeing that gives rise to them. A way of moving the world to where our hearstrings are. The result effortlessly radiates outwards with beauty from disciplined soul. It's a different thing from impressionists who, in painting as well as film, lacked the disciplined practice that we find in Buddhist art; so they painted looking to see.

I have puzzled over Mizoguchi because, all else aside, this reflective seeing is not always well integrated with the outer layers that resolve emotionally. It's like a transparent Japanese image has been plastered on top with all manner of Western-influenced frescoes - influences Mizoguchi practiced since the 30s. So even though both Oharu and this end with profound glances of a fleeting suffering world, it is just too much work trying to find their proper emptiness to let them settle.

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