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Luminous...painterly...haunting...devastating...in terms of both
substance and style, a cinematic achievement of the very highest
order. Like all great works of art, it is incomparable, although it
would not be misleading to place it in the company of the very best
of Renoir, Ford, and Kurosawa. It has the same kind of
compassionate humanism, high-caliber storytelling, and
effortless-seeming mastery of the medium...the same generosity.
I prefer this film even to the great (and much better-known) Ugetsu. And I know now why Welles once said that Mizoguchi "can't be praised enough, really." I hope one day this film will be as well known as it deserves to be.
Many would not even rank "Sansho the Bailiff" among Mizoguchi's better works, let alone cite it as one of the greatest films of all time. I have not seen every film ever made nor every film Mizoguchi ever made but I find it hard to imagine that there are many better films than this or that Mizoguchi made one of them. "Sisters of Gion" comes close, but even that masterpiece cannot match the transcendental glories of "Sansho." It is sheer perfection, utilizing the elements of melodrama that Mizoguchi so excelled at (without overdoing it as he sometimes did) against the backdrop of a haunting, almost mythic landscape. Indeed, the film has the power of myth, even more so than "Ugetsu" (which perhaps tried just a little too hard for that mythic quality) and stands today - almost 50 years after it was made - as a film that is almost shocking in its sublime glories. Mizoguchi was without a doubt one of the giants of cinema and this film is breathtaking.
I don't consider SANSHO DAYU to be the best introduction to the great
Kenji Mizoguchi, but - after many viewings, I do consider it to be the
best of what I've seen.
In the years after WWII, Mizoguchi's interest in period drama deepened - he ultimately was best known outside of Japan for his period dramas (jidaigeki), though his take on the historical film was highly personalized with the introduction of contemporary thematic elements, and this film is the high water mark in that development, with a detailed story exploring oppression, class structures and societal ethics.
Late in life, Mizoguchi's interest in Buddhism also expanded tremendously, which is reflected to a great degree in this film, with various sacrifices, renunciations of privilege, and familial reconciliations figuring prominently in the intricate story - notably so at SANSHO's magnificent ending.
"Sansho the Bailiff" (Japanese, 1954): Kenji Mizoguchi made an epic film from what was (apparently) a centuries-old Japanese morality tale. We watch a well-to-do family slowly disintegrate - not from events they cause, but those out of their control. How they each react, how they deal with the passing years and events, and how they find solutions (if any) are powerful, emotional, lessons in life. Can a half-century old Japanese film be useful to a contemporary American audience? Of course it can. Human issues of love, devotion, honor, greed, lust, hate, violence, sadness, and revenge are, if anything, in further need of consideration and dealing. To enhance these thoughts, the musical scoring is superb (I love classical Japanese music), the photography is in gorgeous black/gray/white with artful composing, the pacing is patient and more explanatory than many Japanese films (perhaps Mizoguchi had foreign audiences in mind which I appreciate!), and I often felt like I was watching delicate woodcut prints come to life.
I'm so moved. This is not only one of the greatest film of Mizoguchi but also tell us a very important precept which is almost forgotten. That is "Without mercy, a man is not a human being. Be hard on yourself, but merciful to others." This is very important precept, but how many people still know or remember it? I'd like to use this film for children's educational program. Now I know why "Sansho the Bailiff" was voted for No.1 film of the year beating so many great films like "La Dolce Vita", "Psycho" and so on.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Of the three big names in mid-20th century Japanese cinema, Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, it is Mizoguchi with whom British audiences are possibly the least familiar. Although his output was large, I have still managed to catch up with only four of his works. Initially these have appeared less original than the works of the others; however, a recent further viewing of "Sansho Dayu" has set me on a re-appraisal. All the films of Mizoguchi I have seen have been set in medieval feudal Japan when power was in the hands of very few people who believed the peasant majority to be human rubbish fit only for exploitation. "Sansho Dayu" in particular deals with a dawn of enlightenment in a dark age, brought about by the conscience of a father to be followed years later by his son. The world in which it takes place is as troubled as any imaginable. When the father, a man of some position, is banished because of his sympathy for peasants, his wife and children - a brother and sister - set out to join him but are waylaid by bandits. The mother is shipped to an island community to serve as a prostitute while the children, remaining on the mainland, are sold as slaves to the evil Sansho the Bailiff. The title is misleading as this is essentially the children's story. Growing up in captivity the youth temporarily loses his sense of morality when he realises that he can exist more comfortably as his master's henchman. The rest of the film deals with his redemption, the consequence of which is to make the world just a slightly better place. Although the morality of the story is stated in the most simple of terms, the film wields considerable power. Like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi is an outstanding director of action sequences, so that the waylaying of the family and the attempted escapes from Sansho's compound have a real sense of immediacy - he is a master orchestrator of the tracking shot. He also evokes the most poignant performances from his actresses; in "Sansho" the mother and daughter are the characters we remember, particularly the mother, whose final scene of reconciliation with her son is the stuff of great tragedy. I read one piece of professional criticism that placed this film on the very highest level along with Angelopoulos's "Landscape in the Mist". Although I would not go along with this, the final scene of "Sansho" is only a rung or two below.
Man's inhumanity to man is presented here with no artifice. This has long
been a favorite of mine, although it's difficult to sell many others on the
premise -- an honest, benevolent Governor in medieval Japan is imprisoned by
the military regime, forcing his wife, son, and daughter to fend for
themselves. They are soon captured, separated, and sold into slavery, but
remained determined to reunite.
There's something about the medieval Japanese setting that lends itself to explorations of grandiose themes painted with a broad brush. This will break your heart, and belongs on your shelf next to "Ran".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
kenji mizoguchi is clearly one of the greatest film makers that ever lived. i would rate this film as his all time best. slightly ahead of "ugetsu" which is also superb. "sansho the bailiff" is one of the most devastating portraits of human suffering that i've ever seen on film. a mother is seperated from her 2 children. she is forced into a life of prostitution. the children are sent to a slave labor camp. years go by, and it seems unlikely that the 3 will ever be reunited. mizoguchi's film looks like a collection of great masterpiece paintings. it is gorgeously shot in black and white. i love every last frame of this sensational film.~~~~~ hmmmmmm, let's see.....10/10
With tears of emotions the word "masterpiece" begins to develop on my
lips. Incapable to speak it out loud, a gentle smile surrounds my face.
I am deeply blessed. (This is my immediate reaction after having
finished watching "Sansho".)
In long, meditative shots, Mizoguchi fluently tells the story of two siblings who get separated from their mother and have to work for a cruel slave owner. It is an old legend of destitution and revenge, brought in pictures so beautiful, that you would want to frame each and every one of it and hang them up above your bed. Those are pictures of utter elegance, extreme subtlety and an intoxicating abstinence of brutality, of vain love and the slam of fate, which form that one condition people usually call life.
Probably the best film I have seen in 2006.
This is the second film I saw by Kenji Mizoguchi (the first one being
Ugetsu). Sansho the Bailiff is a gripping and moving story of the
importance of ideals and virtue in a world of misery and harshness. It
captured the silver lion at Venice in 1954, along with Seven Samurai.
This film is a masterpiece, and Mizoguchi is one of the greatest
directors of all time. His films portray the dramatic "story"
perfectly. A Mizoguchi film lets you not simply watch a narrative, but
feel it and experience it as well, more so than in most other movies
you'll probably watch. His most moving moments, including the ending in
Sansho, as well as Ugetsu, produce moments of genuine pathos in the
viewer: their is no hint of over-dramatization or sentimentality.
I would this film a 9.5/10, only because Ugetsu (which I gave 10/10) is more perfect in its devastation (yes, everything is relative). Watch it, treasure every moment of it, and hope a DVD will come out in the near future.
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