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.
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