A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

It's rare to see a film whose title character is the villain -- unless you count monster movies like the many versions of Dracula -- but Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) is decidedly that, the slave-driving administrator of a medieval Japanese manor. (It's as if Uncle Tom's Cabin had been called Simon Legree.) But in fact, Sansho serves as a catalyst for the story that centers on an aristocratic family. The father displeases his feudal lord by being too merciful to the people he governs, so he's banished to a distant province while his wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), and their children, Zushio and Anju, remain behind with her brother until the children are old enough to make the dangerous cross-country journey. But when they set out, they are betrayed and sold into slavery. Tamaki is forced into prostitution and separated from the children, who grow up as slaves on the estate administered by Sansho. One day, Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) hears a new slave, brought from the island of Sado, singing a song about a woman who mourns the loss of her children named Zushio and Anju, and learns that her mother is still alive. Meanwhile, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) has decided that the best way to survive in slavery is to go along with Sansho's demands, which include punishing an elderly slave by branding him on the forehead. Anju is appalled by what her brother has become, because he has turned against the principles of mercy and human equality that their father taught them, but when the opportunity to escape presents itself, she persuades him to do so. Staying behind, and facing the wrath of Sansho, she drowns herself. Eventually, Zushio wreaks revenge on Sansho and liberates the slaves, then goes in search of his mother. This reworking of an ancient fable is one of the most miraculous of films, an exquisitely photographed (by Kazuo Miyagawa), designed (by Hisakazu Tsuji), and acted work, radiating Mizoguchi's deep human sympathy. Tanaka, who starred in Ugetsu (1953) and The Life of Oharu (1952), the other two films usually ranked alongside Sansho the Bailiff as Mizoguchi's greatest works, has a smaller role than in the others, but her final scene in this film is one of the most heart-breaking performances in all movies.