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The story begins with the governor of a province being stripped of his position because he was too kind and thought foremost about the welfare of his people. This would upset the terror and repression used to control the people! His family is cast out of the land and it's unknown what the exact fate was of the kind governor. Not too long after that, the family is torn apart by bandits and the 13 and 8 year-old children are sold into slavery. Their mother, unknown to them, if forced into prostitution. Now if the movie only wallowed in this misery, I would have no doubt hated it. However, what is interesting is what the boy does 10 later when he finally escapes his slave master. His actions and his subsequent attempts to find his family make the movie well worth seeing. Yes, it is quite depressing but there are some good moments as well and the story kept my attention throughout.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of the darkest of treasures of Japanese cinema telling the tale of the family of a disgraced Governor who dared take the side of the oppressed within his province and was demoted in great shame by his Daimyo. The family fleeing before the inevitable humiliation is taken in one cold, dark night by a seemingly caring women secretly in league with slave traders selling their captives into service to one ruthless sack of crap overlord beloved by his superior for all the labor he squeezes out of his slaves. The two children are separated from their mother and suffer the added burden of wondering what became of their mother. The work camp is cruel beyond belief. Those stupid enough to try and escape are first branded and beaten. Later, a woman is crippled so she cannot run anymore; she wastes away and is set out to die in the woods. The two children quietly suffer their toils wondering always about their mother. The daughter hears her sad song lugubriously recounting the horrors of life. This pushes her even more to be free and seek her out. The situation becomes progressively less and less tolerable. The decision point is reached and only the son can make the break.
I understand, as you read this, you say why on earth would I want to watch such a depressing movie? It is beautiful in its honesty about the darkness of human existence something that is common in Eastern cultures but quite absent from Western films with their requisite 'happy' endings. The son is befriended by a Feudal Lord and, after a great time, is promoted to the position of Bailiff. His benefactor is horrified when he says he is going to use his new powers to benefit those slaves under the monster's hegemony. Unfortunately, this creep makes lots of money for the ruling clan and they do not want any ripples in the water. The son faces a great moral choice: lose his place and power to help free the slaves languishing under the monster's cruelty or abandon them and keep his power. Unbeknownst to him, his sister simply could not endure it anymore. She walks into the water and drowns herself.
He makes the right choice to the consternation of his benefactor and returns to the monster's domain on an official visit. He is unctuously received until he speaks his will; the horror on his torturer's face when he realizes this is the boy he so mistreated returned with great power over him. The movie is quite bleak but he does triumph in the end; the loss of his beloved sister is still so devastating. I love the movie for its honesty and bravery in depicting human cruelty. Many viewers will not enjoy seeing children mistreated like this. Most of the serious delineated abuse is visited upon the adults. The acting, writing and directing are excellent. The return of the once destitute slave now in charge of the monster is worth owning this classic for. The Eastern view of Life is quite darker; the world is a place of suffering and pain. The mother's sad song will remain in your memory long after you view this. Yet, it has a place in my library. It has a upbeat resolution; he lost much but he returns great good unto his fellow slaves. From The Fiery Crucible Of Pain: Behold, The Protector Is Born. Lift Your Sword Above Their Heads.
The helpless boy returns to bring relief to his fellow sufferers. From all the suffering, in the night, if one survives, you can bring relief to those in pain. A Masterpiece.
"That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger." From The Warrior's Book Of Life. Friedrich Nietzsche
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What kind of a legacy can a man leave to his children. The one in this
story hits so close to home. Be kind to others, even if it causes you
personal pain. Not only have I personally heard words similar to these,
but have seen the example shown in this film of an honorable man who
retains his honor no matter what the cost.
I wonder if Kurosawa took a little of this film for High and Low. It's theme of honor is so similar.
Americans will quickly observe what it was like in the South before the Civil War. It was the same in Japan during this period. People were sold as slaves to work on the Lord's property, or sold as courtesans.
Zushiô and Anju are separated from their father after he loses his position and is transferred. They leave with their mother for another town and are kidnapped by bandits and sold as slaves. Their mother was placed in a whorehouse. Zushiô managed to escape after 10 years and miraculously gets a government position over the same province. he immediately frees all the slaves and bans slavery in that province. He then resigns and goes looking for his mother, after finding out that his father is dead and his sister killed herself to aid in his escape.
Honor, mercy, and love are interwoven throughout this tale and it is magnificent.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Drawing on a traditional tale and a 1915 novella by Mori Ogai,
Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff is a historical drama concerning the
cruel misfortune befalling the wife and children of a humane provincial
governor exiled in ancient Japan.
Few films can match the feeling for the beauty of nature, the painterly eye and captivating silvery luminosity. The great cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo does a magnificent job. With his preference for long takes, Mizoguchi is renowned for serene fluid camera moves (masterly yet unobtrusive tracking and crane shots are a trademark), but he also knew when stillness was required, as in the central, heart-rending scene i'll call Anju's ripples. There's more impact in her few ripples than a Hollywood tidal wave.
Water features strongly in the film. Mizoguchi was not one to blatantly point up symbolism, but here water is involved with separation, beauty, purity, self-sacrifice, danger, aching longing, suffering, continuity, and at the end the eternal. Water is counterpointed by fire, male balanced with female.
Sansho the Bailiff was the third consecutive Mizoguchi film to win a major prize at Venice (the Silver Lion), in a vintage year. Mizoguchi was an extremely driven, competitive director. It was the success of Kurosawa's Rashomon at Venice in 1951 that spurred him on to the heights of his string of late masterpieces. International recognition came late for him- he died of leukaemia in 1956, at the age of 58- but his epitaph rightly bears the words "the world's greatest film director."
I doubt any film matches Sansho the Bailiff's sense of the aching pain of family separation, of longing to be reunited. Mizo was strong on issues of identity. Here we have Zushio's name changed more than once, and other repetitions of scenes and motifs: wood being chopped by the children then- a crucial moment- as adults. Providing an ironic sense of justice, Sansho is exiled, just as the governor had been exiled. The film makes striking use of sounds and song, carried and echoing across time and space. With its message that "without mercy man is like a beast", it's a film full of compassion and humanity.
The film has clear links with Mizo's own life: the main female characters, sister Anju (Kagawa Kyoko) and mother Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo) are paragons like Mizo's own mother and sister. Female suffering in an oppressive patriarchal world is often central in his films. Here the main character may be Zushio and the title character also male, but my feelings go out more for sister Anju. Mizo's mother died in his teens and there may be something of his own yearning in Zushio's search. On the other hand, Mizo thought none too highly of his dad, whereas in the film the father is also a paragon of virtue and wisdom to be guarded and passed on. But then, the tyrant Sansho himself- memorably played by Shindo Eitaro- may stand for the father Mizo despised as ripe (or rotten) for overthrow. Sansho's own son rejects his ways and turns to Buddhism.
Mizoguchi aimed high and often behaved tyrannically on set but although something of an aesthete his films are not mannered or pretentious. He aimed for balance between realism and heightened emotion, giving discreet dignity and distance to emotions without blunt manipulation. Melodrama in his hands reaches a sublime level of refinement. He avoids self-serving diversions that will harm the narrative: there is an underlying integrity. He has his own distinct style without fitting so neatly the auteur model as, say, Ozu and Bresson. In Sansho the Bailiff the average shot length is shorter than the earlier extremes of Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) and Loyal 47 Ronin (1941), and gone is Mizoguchi's abhorrence of close-up evident in Straits of Love and Hate (1937): though still used quite sparingly, emotional connection between viewer and characters is strengthened.
The film stresses family unity and an idealised patriarchal wisdom- in competition with a brutal version of male power. Mizo supports the overthrow of tyranny and the revolt by the enslaved. His sympathies are with the underdogs and dispossessed. He was consistently opposed to injustice, as recognised by the leftist Yoda (whose torture by the establishment in the 30s may add relevance to Sansho's brutal tortures), and in the film gives Sansho a tougher fate than does Mori Ogai, though without resorting to vengeful sadism. Mizo was often authoritarian, petulant and even abusive, and for all his concentration on the suffering of women he was very far from saint-like in his own dealings with them. Yet the humane qualities that shine through films like Sansho the Bailiff are clearly genuine.
The power of the wonderful ending, often described as transcendental, may also be partly indebted to the Buddhism which Mizo developed late in life. Sansho the Bailiff has been picked by one organisation among the top 100 spiritual films, but the Vatican missed it and Mizo out of their 45 recommendations.
Mizoguchi and Yoda made several changes to the original sources, for the purposes of greater realism and social message. The siblings' age seniority is reversed, their young adulthood rather than simply childhood is portrayed and miraculous occurrences of a fairy-tale like story are ditched. The film also provides a reason for the governor's exile, to reinforce solidarity with the people in the face of unjust authority. Mizoguchi no doubt rightly jettisoned the miraculous cure of Tamaki's blindness in Mori Ogai's novella.
Some consider the film too harrowing and pessimistic. For me it finds a poignant balance between suffering and beauty, cruelty and love, imprisonment and freedom, pain and redemption, loss and comfort, aesthetic value effectively joined with political anger. A film to love and cherish, the exquisite peak of cinema.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To me the tragic plot of "Sansho Dayu" is secondary to the scenic backdrop of this remarkable film. The lush woodland in the opening scene is diametrically opposed to the squalid encampment of Sansho where gnarled leafless trees punctuate the slave's plight. Rarely have I been so captivated by the "background" so much that it eclipses the narrative, although Kinoshita's "Twenty-four Eyes" glorious island setting and the whispering rushes in Shindo's "Onibaba", have much the same effect on me. The Sado island scenes are all the more poignant because this beautiful location is the prison for Zushio and Anju's mother. However it is the brief kidnap scene that I find myself returning to most.There is a stark minimalism here that evokes the Chinese watercolours of the Sung dynasty to the lament of a single bamboo flute, indeed the score is perfectly understated throughout. Mizoguchi's composition is second to none, both interior and exterior shots geometrically sensitive and precise. The sequence used for Anju's suicide cuts from an old woman, centrally framed by an open gate to Anju wading slowly into a lake then back to the old woman praying then finally to Anju's last gasp breaking on the ripples of the surface. This is an unforgettable scene at once heart-breaking and beautiful, the very essence of "mono-no-aware".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sansho the Bailiff, quite simply put, is poetry on film. What we have
here isn't just a collage of images, a script, some actors, whatever.
What we have here is a vision and an idea. That in the hands of a
master can become so much more than the sum of it's parts, and without
a doubt Kenji Mizoguchi has proved he is right up there amongst the
greats not only of Asian or more specifically even Japanese Cinema,
such as Ozu or Kurosawa, but amongst all of cinema full stop. There is
so much here that hit me deep to the core, so much that many years
after watching it it still has some kind of a mysteriously profound
effect upon me, and i guess that is the power art can have, the ability
to in some way even affect your life. I mean, you are likely to many
times in your life watch a film, or listen to a piece of music, and
think "Wow that was great." but how man time in your lifetime to you
watch a film or listen to a piece of music and at the end of it feel
completely stunned, and have no real words to descirbe it. It's a much
rarer event, it has probably happened to me a dozen times at most, and
this fits into that category, and this is one of the films which shaped
my tastes in movies full stop.
Sansho the Bailiff has often been described as the saddest film in the world, and I think thats very apt. The film is coincidentally not named after what can be described as a main character but more-so named after a symbol, Sansho a character whom appears briefly here and there, but not very often, but at the same time he is at the very core of the concept of this film. He's a very odd and immediately striking looking old man whom has some high position working under some feudal lord of some sort, and he runs a slave camp. The workers are treated no better than dogs, as was the case in this period of Japan, status was everything, and Sansho ruled the roost with an iron fist. The main characters of this film are a family torn apart by this hypocritical and floored hierarchy. This family; the mother and the son and daughter, are attacked by bandits and sold off. The mother is sent off to an island to work, isolated from her children whom are sent off to the slave camp under Sansho. Why were the family out there in the first place? There father was exiled for showing sympathy to bandits and as such was exiled. He did previously to that have a high positioning too.
Throughout the film you feel the pangs of distance, the poignance of the situation, and this is no less carried along by the absolutely stunning cinematography by Mizoguchi. The film is as much about family and hope as it is about status and the time period, and how this is sustained throughout many years despite the separation.
So Sansho the Bailiff is amptly named after a character in the film which you probably only see but a few times; a character fuelled by the power and greed his position gave to him. The film is centrally focused more on the children, a son and a daughter, and how they try to handle the way they are treated, there separation from there parents and there own destinies.
The son and the daughter react very differently to the situation, one loses all sense of morality and does his best to gain position in the camp, hoping to rid himself of the squalor, the daughter never lets go of hope of once again seeing there mother.
This is one of the most important things about the film, because the film is essentially a morality tail. The sons loss of morality, eventual realisation and redemption, the consequences of his actions and the things he learns from all he went through. The main driving force of the ideals within the film are the contrasting effects the situation has upon the two children, one accepting the fate and doing there utmost to gain stature, the other not so much spitting in the face of the system so to speak, but merely going along with it in hope. We then have the eventual realisation, retribution etc etc etc.
The point is I have never seen a sadder film, or a more poignant film. Truly one of the few films which can be described as poetry on film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of the nostra about Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi is that
he is 'the most Japanese of all filmmakers.' Another is that, compared
to his two titanic contemporaries, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa,
Mizoguchi was the hardest to pin down in a style or genre. Having just
watched his 1954 film Sansho The Bailiff (Sanshô Dayû) I can agree with
both of the above sentiments, for Mizoguchi excels at the jidai-geki
(historical drama) genre. Furthermore, I can do so after having seen
just one other Mizoguchi film, Ugetsu Monogatari. Whereas Ugetsu is
spiritual and poetic, Sansho is worldly and realistic. This despite the
fact that the source materials for the film (legends and short fiction)
are rife with supernatural overtones.
The screenplay was written by Fuji Yahiro, and adapted from the legend and a 1915 short story, Sansho The Steward, by Ogai Mori. Reputedly, Mizoguchi wanted the film to more closely follow the titular character, rather than the brother and sister who dominate the film. And while that would have been a more daring choice (the equivalent of focusing on the Big Bad Wolf rather than Little Red Riding Hood) the Daiei Studio's insistence on exploring the brother and sister tale of Zushio (Masahiko Kato) and Anju (Keiko Enami) allowed Mizoguchi to add layers of psychological depth and realism to what had always been little more than a Japanese fairy tale. That said, the screenplay is outstanding, even if it is a bit depressing. It reminded me, in its unending emotional declension, of Theo Angelopolous's Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow .The film truly evokes human growth potential at a root level. Zushio feels, through much of the film, that it is Anju who is the force he must rely on, yet, it is only after her death that he is emboldened enough to do all the courageous things he does. And the stellar cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa only adds to the film. Rarely does a film so totally rely on a single element as this does. In Sansho, it is the diagonal placement of spears, branches, and other objects to bisect the screen, as well as the use of many shades of gray to suggest color where there is none. In a sense, this film reminds me of a black and white version of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Red Desert, which used color in an emotive and narrative way the way Miyagawa uses gray shadings in this film.
There is little wonder that this film won its year's Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival- the third straight Mizoguchi film to do so, following Life Of Oharu and Ugetsu Monogatari. The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is shown in a 1.33:1 aspect ration, and the print is nearly flawless, save for a few scratches at the opening and closing credits. The disk also contains interviews with film critic Tadao Sato, Mizoguchi's first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and the actress who played the grown Anju, Kyoko Kagawa. There is a film commentary track by Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles, which is solid, focusing more on the historical roots of the mythos and how Mizoguchi parallaxed his film against that past. Angles is at his best in this aspect, but falters and gets a bit fey and didactic when trying to discuss the more cinematic aspects of the film. He also, at his worst, is manifestly reading from a prepared text rather than reacting to the images on screen. The package is rounded out by a booklet with an essay, The Lessons Of Sansho, by film scholar Mark Le Fanu, and two print versions of the legend- Ogai Mori's 1915 short story, and an earlier mythic tale.
Mizoguchi shows himself, in just the two films I've seen thus far, to be far more daring in both subject matter and style than either of his two great rivals, Ozu and Kurosawa. This alone does not make nor imply he is the greater filmmaker, but it does stake out a territory that is his alone. There is, indeed, more than just one way to achieve greatness, and Mizoguchi seems to have tried many, yet his success seems hardly of the 'throw a thousand darts and get one bullseye' sort.
Sansho The Bailiff is a great film, due to its realism, to the point of going to the opposite end of a typical Hollywood ending, and also because almost every second of the film serves a purpose that is later elaborated upon. It is a flower whose opening bud seems eternal, and whose interior can only be sniffed. Thus, I'd have to rate it a bit above Ugetsu Monogatari, as great as that film was. This is because watching a film Sansho The Bailiff makes one not only a happier viewer, but a better person. No, I do not mean that in the trite sense so many PC commentaries imply; that its humanist message of kindness over cruelty will 'ennoble you,' but in the sense that all great art makes its audience better, for it does not merely tell you something the art and/or artist feels the audience should know, but because it actively stimulates a greater intellect by forcing the viewer to cogitate upon it, not only as it unfolds but long afterwards. It is, in this way, truly transcendental, beyond the hokey pseudo-Orientalist way the term is usually defined. Sansho The Bailiff does this, and in spades, for it moves at multiple levels of consciousness- the emotive, the intellectual, and that indefinable other that exists betwixt, to move its percipient. It is a political film, yet one made with great subtlety, that shows how dilemmas great and small are resolved and not, something that both old and modern shrill Hollywood PC schlock (think Crash) are simply unable or unwilling to do. Japanese or not, Mizoguchi left a masterful work of art for all the rest of us to grow on.
SANSHO THE BAILIFF is a magical, historical period drama that at any
moment can break the human heart. The Film is set in Heian period in
Japan. Slavery was permitted. The story describes the family of one of
the court officials who, because of his honesty and integrity, was
sentenced by superiors. His wife has cheated, kidnapped and forced into
prostitution. His son and daughter have become slaves at the notorious
and cruel Bailiff. The young man, after growing up in the camp, becomes
the chief aide to his master, but his sister and cruel circumstances
force him to face his own conscience...
The scenery is extremely rich. The costumes symbolizes the social status and human personality. It is amazing how the change in the character of the main protagonists depends on the social status. However, the family is most important in this film. Perhaps even more than social sacrifice, which mainly affects women, regardless of age. The mother, who is in the greatest pain for lost children, creates a song, a daughter, who takes her own life in order to provide her own brother an opportunity for new life, are parts of identity of Mr. Mizoguchi.
The protagonists are emotional, they suffer and live out of necessity, regardless of the realization of the ideals that they carry within. This film can be seen as a tragic history of one family. The film is rightly named after the main villain, because he is in the middle between two worlds.
A film about morality, love, family, duty and compassion that at times is breathtaking.
This is one of the most canonically celebrated films that I had, until
a couple of days ago, never seen. It fully lives up to the hype- this
is a profound and moving work of the highest aesthetic accomplishment.
I really like Mizuguchi's "contemporary" films about women in post-war Japan. But his period pieces are far more visually sumptuous. As with Ugetsu, the landscapes in this film are stunning: comparable and clearly indebted to museum-worthy Japanese scroll painting.
The first quarter or so of the film is a series of flashbacks of a genuinely benevolent, both personally and politically, patriarch recalled from a feminine present of compromise and scarcity. A truly horrifying, if unforgettably beautiful, kidnapping on a lake transports us into a reality in which hope, and memory, seem proscribed.
From this space of subjection will come the world most familiar to us- one in which there are, indeed, acts of altruistic self-destruction, and even of effective decency, if motivated primarily by revenge. Ultimately peace and justice, represented by the Father seen only in flashback, seem like fantasies in the minds of the tormented. Our world is for suffering.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This 1954 movie, set in Medieval Japan, and directed by Japanese master
Kenji Mizoguchi is a great adventure film. The story is a long one
(warning, major point plots will be revealed ahead) but basically is
about a brother and sister, Zushio and Anju, children of a powerful but
honest governor, who are taken from their mother and sold into slavery
once their father fells into disgrace. They are forced to work under
horrible conditions in a camp run by the brutal Sansho of the title.
They spend many years there, becoming young adults in the camp. Zushio
eventually manages to escape. A high imperial official, moved by his
story, appoints him governor of the region where Sansho's camp is
located. This will allow him to exact justice for what happened to him.
But will he be able to save his mother and sister?
Sansho is not the protagonist of the film, but he is a great villain. The actors include some stalwarts of Japanese classic cinema, such as Eitaro Shindo (who is great as Sansho), Kyoko Kagawa (playing Anju as an adult) or Kinuyo Tanaka (as the mother of Zushio and Anju). The movie's only weakness: a crucial plot point is hard to believe: the high official has scarcely met Zushio yet he quickly appoints him as a governor.
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