Sansho the Bailiff (1954) Poster

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allan82523 November 2002 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.
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A master of the medieval tale
jandesimpson15 August 2002
Warning: 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.
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An enormously powerful tale of oppression and resistance
davidals30 November 2002
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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The peak of cinema
johndavies0071 March 2014
Warning: 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.
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Delicate woodcut prints come to life
futures-15 June 2006
"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.
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A haunting, heartbreaking masterpiece
sansho-424 October 1999
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".
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A timeless masterpiece
ron-chow24 September 2007
The first time I saw this film was when I was in university. It impressed me greatly then. Watching it again recently invoked the same emotion - I was deeply saddened by the horrific acts one human can do to the other. And guess what, a century later the human race has not really advanced that much in this area.

While the film also highlights the noble side of us - compassion and mercy to the weak, maintenance of integrity amid suffering - it is the downside of it that gets me. I finished the movie feeling depressed, as I did several decades ago.

Super B/W photography, a good story, and masterly directing by Mizoguchi make this a classic film of all time. Find an evening when you yearn for artistic fulfillment, and yet are prepared to pay an emotional price for it. Highly recommended for the serious film buffs.
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A great film tell us a very important precept which is almost forgotten
ynpad20 January 2000
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.
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beautiful and tragic
amantsdupontneuf23 February 2002
Warning: 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
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More than just a story, this gives us a peek at the director's personal demons.
rooprect11 September 2020
"Sansho the Bailiff" is a cinematic retelling of a 1000 year old folk tale. The story centers around a prosperous family that was disgraced due to the father's progressive ideas (fairness and equality for peasants). With the father in exile, the mother and 2 young children must undertake a difficult journey to join him, but they are ambushed by bandits and sold into slavery. This is the story of each family member's determination to reunite.

It's an excellent film, well deserving of all the praise it has received. In terms of cinematography and visual poetry, it's the kind of film where each frame could be a photo to hang on your wall. Shots are carefully composed with perfect balance, and although it's in black & white, we get the full, layered spectrum of every grey known to the human eye.

But as you watch this, here's an interesting tidbit that may enhance your interest. Pay close attention to the roles of women in the story, because that's what makes this work fascinating as not only a social statement but as a psychoanalysis of the great director Kenji Mizoguchi himself. At the time of this film's release (1954) and certainly in medieval times, women in Japan were horribly oppressed. Even in folk art, drama and literature, their characters traditionally played subservient and 2-dimensional roles. But here Mizoguchi turns that upside down, in a subtle way. Our 2 heroines (the mother and daughter) are, despite their physical limitations, the strongest of character and will, and they are the ones propelling the story forward. This mirror's the director's personal experience and, evidently, his private pain.

Raised in poverty, Mizoguchi witnessed the struggles, sacrifices and ultimately the determination of the women in his life (mother, sister) who suffered in order to give him the opportunities he needed to succeed. If you keep this in mind as you watch this, I guarantee your appreciation of this film will be expanded. Much like Mozart's famous opera "Don Giovanni" was his catharsis over his own father's sacrifices (and tyranny), here in "Sansho the Bailiff" we get Mizoguchi's heart open wide, showing us how he perceives the women in his life as the fighters, the rebels, the spirits of determination, tenacity and sacrifice. As a social message, this film certainly delivered ideas ahead of its time, but perhaps more poignant is the rare peek into the mind, the demons and the secret debt he felt he owed to those who taught him the meaning of strength.
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Without mercy, man is a beast.
lastliberal30 November 2008
Warning: 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.
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Sansho the Bailiff: perfect execution of dramatic story-telling
ottffsse_sequence21 April 2005
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. Simply stunning.

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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exceptionally sad tale of the evils of medieval Japanese society
MartinHafer8 July 2005
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.
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A Life Without Freedom
zolaaar13 December 2006
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.
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Kenji Mizoguchi's 'Sansho the Bailiff' reflects Cinema at its most profoundly Artistic and resonantly Heartfelt.
Ed-from-HI20 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
The sincere beauty of Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece Sanshô Dayû (aka Sansho the Bailiff) from 1954 is made even more persuasive due to its inherently understated, subtle (even humble), but philosophically resonant Japanese/Asian Cinematic style in which genuine emotional 'power' is authentically generated thru restraint by directly contrasting outward societal 'quiet complacency' versus paradoxical inner torment/ sparking the courage to steadfastly counter-act experienced injustices (which were many during Japan's 'Heian' feudal period, when this story took place).

But there is also much about Kenji Mizoguchi's film's irresistible emotional resonance  that is actually somewhat difficult to fully understand, since this story seems so simple upon first glance (with source material by Ogai Mori), dealing with a Mother and two children sold into slavery and the subsequent horrors witnessed and terrible sacrifices experienced, with arduous attempts made to ultimately right some of these relentlessly inimical wrongs.

Suffice to say that a central theme is the preservation and actual honoring of 'humanity'  thru acts of genuine empathy and merciful deeds (even after experiencing extremely unsympathetic circumstances). Much credit must go to the three gifted-thespian Leads in meticulously conveying the accumulated torment/anguish/and resolve inherent to these sensitive but steadfast characters: Kinuyo Tanaka (as Mother) and as the grown children, Kyoko Kagawa (as Anju) and Yoshiaki Hanayagi (Zushio) and, of course, Eitaro Shindo (as Sansho).

Watching Kenji Mizoguchi's 'Sansho the Bailiff' represents one of those rarefied Cinematic experiences that will leave you with an indelibly-changed (hopefully for the better) outlook pointing toward the potential for 'humanity' to eschew the easy (well-trodden) path of self-interest and conversely seek/traverse the more challenging but rewarding path of 'common-good'  Kenji Mizoguchi's Cinematic message is not preachy or didactic by any means, but "Sansho the Baliff's positive impact is still undeniable.
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A masterclass in landscape photography and exquisite framing.
dwyermckerr8 March 2008
Warning: 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".
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The saddest film in the world
Madluke9130 September 2010
Warning: 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.
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Cosmoeticadotcom17 September 2008
Warning: 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.
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A film of great sorrow and great beauty by Kenji Mizoguchi
Terrell-430 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"Without mercy," says Taira Masauji to Zushio, his young son, "man is not a human being." He was a provincial governor in late Heian Japan, a fair man who tried to bring justice to the peasants. He is being exiled for disagreeing with the province's feudal lord. Years later, the boy, now a young man, is given this advice by a monk. "Humans have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them. They're ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot come true."

Which message is the true one?

Sansho the Bailiff is a beautiful, simple folk tale of grief. It eventually works its way into a redemptive humanity, but not until we have experienced the deepest of sorrow and injustice. When Zushio's father is exiled, he, his mother and his sister must set out to find protection with distant relatives. They are captured by slave traders. Their mother is separated from them sold into prostitution. He and his younger sister are taken as slaves to work in the manor of a distant great lord. The manor is run ruthlessly by Sansho, the bailiff. The work is unending. Those who are sick must keep working, and when they are unable to work they are taken to a field and left to die. Those who try to escape are branded. There is no hope. The two children grow to be adults. The sister has kept her sense of humanity. She has never forgotten her mother. Zushio has gradually become as heart-hearted as the bailiff and his overseers. He has forgotten his father's teachings. At one point he brands another slave, an old man, who tried to escape. A woman near death, taken out to be left to die, awakens what we thought Zushio had forgotten. His sister tells him to escape, and stays behind to delay the pursuit. The consequences lead to more sorrow, to sacrifice and to a realization that Zushio has remembered what his father stood for and taught him. The conclusion is a reaffirmation that without mercy, we are beasts, but there is much which is bittersweet as we learn also the fates of Zushio's sister and mother.

The movie is one of those great visual poems of grief and hope. The story is told in a hundred shades of gray, both emotionally and in the exquisitely presented black-and-white photography. The simplicity of the story and the beauty of the images almost make the story seem a misty dream, except the mist is largely made of tears. The score for the film adds immeasurably to the sense of sad unreality. This is truly a profound film; whatever a person may bring to the movie is amplified by the message, the style and the story-telling of the film itself.
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Highly recommended - one of the best films I've ever seen
Scarletfire-127 August 2005
This film is very special to me. About 30 years ago I saw the beginning of it on TV. I was only able to watch the first half of it. I never saw the ending and didn't know the name of the movie. It was always nagging at me. I finally determined to find out what it was. I did searches on various possible spellings of the character "Zushio" till I found it. Yes! At last I knew what the film was called. I would have never guessed "Sansho The Bailiff". I did not recall whatsoever the bailiff character or his name.

I managed to get a copy of it recently and re-watched it. Its a really well done movie. SO cool to see the ending after all these years. I can say that this is one of the best films I've ever seen.
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ruralron25 July 2007
Watching Sansho the Bailiff is an emotional, gut-wrenching experience, yet worth every second (and then some) of your involvement. As many others have commented here over the years, this film is a masterpiece.

This is the second film I've seen by the Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi. The first was Ugetsu (or "Ugetsu Monogatari"), perhaps a more famous work. I admired and enjoyed Ugetsu, but Sansho "grabbed me" and never let go -- I became more and more emotional as the movie went on.

I learned of Mizoguchi from a 1970s book (Favorite Movies: Critics Choice), wherein (as the title implies) film critics of that era are asked to choose their favorite movies. Several, including the famous critic Andrew Sarris, spoke highly of Mizoguchi.

The movie considers mercy and compassion in the face of cruelty and often overwhelming helplessness. Do not expect anything like the films made by the great Kurosawa or the less-famous (but great) Ozu. This is not a "fun" movie or a "date" movie (unless you are a very unusual person). It's a serious, beautiful work. Virtually everything about "Sansho," including the oft-praised photography, seems as close to perfect as you are likely to get.
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The transient world
chaos-rampant9 November 2011
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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Beasts and Mercy in feudal Japan
Quinoa198415 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Kenji Mizoguchi has a direct line to the human spirit. Somehow, in his films, even the lessor ones, it's easy to see how he can tap into what is essentially good, and essentially awful, in people and how they live in society, whether it's in a supernatural story like Ugetsu or a look at prostitution in Street of Shame. But as profound a storyteller he could get, few of his works can reach the emotional and, I'll say it, spiritual heights of Sansho the Bailiff. It's a powerful film not because of its melodrama, though it is convincing with that, but in how it portrays right and wrong in people, and distinguishes how class structure tears apart a society like in this medieval Japan (though I'm sure Mizoguchi meant for it to be a universal message). It's also directed with an eye for the human face, how much pain and sadness and strength and doubt can show, and how to film around these characters.

The story is about a family torn apart - a governor is put into exile for disobeying an order (this part of the film, very early on in the first ten minutes, goes by pretty quickly, but it's not the main focus of the story anyway), and his wife and two children walk along the countryside with nowhere to go immediately. They think they're getting help from a woman, but instead are torn apart, the mother going one way and the siblings another, all into slavery. The kids are put under the iron-fist of Sansho, a ruthless man embodying what the former governor describes as how a beast is made by someone without mercy. The kids become young adults in time, but the boy, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) is a drone for Sansho, out of fear of not following orders, much to the dismay of his sister Anju (Kyôko Kagawa).

They finally decide to escape, but another problem arises and they have to split up. This then leads into the main chunk of the second half of the film, where Zushio goes on a path towards redemption, which, ultimately, will be bittersweet. This is all told in an approach to the characters and setting that is not very forgiving. Mizoguchi doesn't want to make anything too sentimental or easy to take. When we see slaves get tortured or branded or their tendons cut, we're meant to feel it, without any safety (albeit he doesn't show it directly, which is a wise choice, just the audio of the screaming and cries). And when it comes time for Zushio to face his past head on, he doesn't screw around, and his path towards heroism, however short-lived, is all the more enthralling because he's earned it, for himself and as seen by the audience. The drama of what happens to his mother, and subsequently his sister, are ever more distressing because of how head-on Mizoguchi makes us face the situation.

And while we're being treated to meditative shots of fields and forests, and faces in turmoil and/or in resolve, some scenes stick out as being just unforgettable. Watch how Mizoguchi stages the scene where Zushio and Anju are ordered and go to take the sick woman to be left for dead in the woods. The timing of this scene, how long the actors take to hit their marks and how the actors Hanayagi and Kagawa hit their marks emotionally, is impeccable, particularly in Zushio's self-realization - everything about it from the staging to the performance is incredible. Equally impressive is just how evil an SOB Sansho is, perhaps too much so like a dark-black to contrast with the light-white of a character like the pure-hearted mother whose song to her children whispers in the air (part of it is the actor, though, as Shindo, with his long gray beard and beady eyes, is sinister and just damn greedy in how he steals a scene).

Though one could criticize some smaller moments and scenes, like how over the top Hanayahi gets when playing the scenes where Zushio tries to get the attention of the chief, it's easy to overlook it in the grand scheme of the masterpiece at work. If nothing else, we get in Sansho the Bailiff an ending that is made to floor everyone in the audience. It doesn't just happen that I started to cry, but it built up to it, how Zushio finds the brothel his mother is staying at, and quite possibly may never find her (he's told she might be dead). Yet their reunited moment is so touching and heartbreaking and painfully but satisfyingly bittersweet that it hits you in the gut. Life may be uncertain, but at least they're no longer forced to be, or choose to be, beasts, and have each other. One of the best of 1954.
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The only bad thing is the title
GyatsoLa7 June 2008
As a long time fan of Japanese cinema I was delighted when Masters of Cinema announced they were bringing out sets of Mizoguchi in Region 2. This is the first one I bought, but I didn't want to write anything here until I'd seen a few more of his films.

Suffice to say, this film is a true masterpiece - I see now why this film and Ugetsu regularly attract such raves. But I also find it harder to write about his movies compared to (for example), Kurosawa or Ozu, both of whom I adore. It is easy to see why Kurosawa or Ozu are so masterful - in the formers case, because his movies are so dynamic, so gripping, so full of ideas. With Ozu, it is his marvelous simplicity. But I find Mizoguchi so much harder to pin down. Sansho is stunningly beautiful, mysterious and compelling, with an ending that will last long in the memory of anyone who sees it. But based as it is on an old legend, there is something indefinable about its meaning. I don't mean this as a criticism, I mean there are deeper resonances within the story that don't fall into the easy category of 'metaphor' or 'allegory'.

Its probably not true to say, as some have argued, that Mizoguchi is somehow more 'Japanese' than Kurosawa. In fact, I understand that he was more determined than Kurosawa to gain approval in the West, and may have introduced an element of eastern exoticism into this movie specifically for this purpose. But nothing can take away from the enormous skill of his direction. The movie is packed with stunningly beautiful scenes, backed with a strange and lovely soundtrack, all tightly edited together into a near perfect package.

I don't give many movies a '10', but I've given this and Ugetsu a 10 as I simply cannot separate them as works of art. The are both magnificent, and both are singular works from a truly great film maker.

If you haven't seen this or Ugetsu, then do yourself a favour. Get this out, turn down the lights and just enjoy cinema in its purest form.
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A Nutshell Review: Sansho the Bailiff
DICK STEEL23 August 2008
Sansho The Bailiff, Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi's movie that won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, opens this season's Japanese Film Festival, and while the titular character happens to be one of the villains in the story, and not even that of a lead character, it's no surprise why this movie was chosen as the opener as it fit the theme of this year's festival to a tee, that of the power of women and femininity. Also, since Kinuyo Tanaka is the actress/director-in-focus as well, this is but one of the movies in her illustrious career that she had worked with all the masters of Japanese Cinema.

But to me, it served as an introduction to both the work of director Kenji Mizoguchi, as well as actress Kinuyo Tanaka, and watching the movie as is without in depth knowledge of the socio-political background that this movie is based, I found it rather hard to appreciate the grandeur of this highly acclaimed epic, but nonetheless it served as a good start to want me to revisit the filmography of Mizoguchi, and perhaps learn from scratch and see his evolving into a cinematic master.

Telling the story of a family ruined and separated by river pirates when the head of a household, a governor no less, gets sent into exile, the movie follows two threads, one with the wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) being sold to prostitution, while the children, Zushio (first played by Masahiko Kato, and then by Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Keiko Enami, and Kyoko Kagawa) get sent off to live as slaves in a household run by the titular character (Eitaro Shindo). We get first hand glimpse of the hardship of the lives of the children, where escapees from their confinement get branded permanently with a mark to their foreheads. Although clinging onto their father's wise teachings on humanity, the children, growing up in such a harsh environment, slowly get jaded, and before you know it, Zushio doesn't bat an eyelid when he gets to met punishment amongst fellow slaves.

This is a tale about one man's redemption, turnaround and exacting sweet vengeance, but not before learning the mistakes of his ways, and suffering terrible loss along the way serving as a wake up call. It's akin to the likes of other classics such as Ben-Hur, and I thought Zushio's tale can be split into 4 parts - as a kid from a good family stature being stripped of everything leaving a very thin sliver of humanity from which to cling from, followed by his awakening from his tragic loss of kin - which was the much talked about haunting scene in the movie - and then his rise to power through a series of positive coincidences, before ending again with his personal sacrifice to look for his long lost mother, whose song in the town she resided in served as clues as to her whereabouts.

While I have no qualms that this movie is indeed assuredly shot, I think long-time readers would likely guess by now that I'm not really a fan of long shots and extended takes. It took its time to tell its story and there are a few moments which looked really comical, even when it's not supposed to, like the behaviour of the mob which fit the intended mentality.

That said, I might give Sansho the Bailiff another go, since it has been given the Criterion treatment, and hopefully on a DVD I would have cultivated enough patience to appreciate the movie a lot more than this first viewing on the big screen.
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