“Sansho the Bailiff” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1954)

In the early 1950s the great writer-director Kenji Mizoguchi converted to Buddhism and then made three successive critically acclaimed masterpieces – Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) – as artistic embodiments of his deep spiritual feelings.  Although all three films portray human life as often outwardly tragic but inwardly capable of grace, the greatest, and saddest, of Mizoguchi’s offerings on this score is the last one, Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô Dayû).  As such, it is one of the greatest films ever made, which is reflected in its ranking 59th on the 2012 British Film Institute poll of international critics for the “Greatest Films of All Time” [1].

The script is based on a famous story of the same name by Ogai Mori (1915), which itself was based on a well-known, centuries-old Japanese folk tale.  However, Mizoguchi, together with his script writers Yoshikata Yoda (a perennial Mizoguchi collaborator) and Fuji Yahiro, are said to have consulted historians in order to fashion a more socially insightful narrative about Japanese traditions of slavery.  The result is a fascinating saga that features profound messages on at least two levels – both the spiritual and the political [2].  I say here, “at least”, because there is always another important level in Mizoguchi’s films: that of the social place of women in Japanese society, a perpetual concern of Mizoguchi’s that stems from his own difficult upbringing [3].

The overall story is set in 11th century Japan during the Heian Period and concerns the hardships and misfortunes suffered by the family of a principled provincial governor after he was expelled and exiled by a warlord for his generous behavior towards his subjects.  What makes this tale fascinating is the moody, almost dirge-like, tenor of the telling as we follow the tortuous and ill-fated paths of the main characters [4].  Mizoguchi mixes together all aspects of cinematic storytelling into his mise-en-scene in order to create this moody effect.  And yet the film’s narrative is not just a one-dimensional horror story, but, on the contrary, is imbued with a realistic flavor that fully engages the viewer.  This is because of the way Mizoguchi’s cinematics visually embed his characters into the physical contexts of his scenes.  In this connection, I revisit what I said about Mizoguchi’s style in my review of Ugetsu [5]:
“For Mizoguchi – as it also was for one of his admirers, Michelangelo Antonioni – the action of a film is so fully situated in its exterior context that we can almost consider that exterior environment to be another participating agent to what transpires in the scene.  Or, looking at it from another angle, we can say that the actors shown are all basically integral aspects of that imposing environmental context.  Mizoguchi accomplishes these effects by employing lengthy and artfully composed moving camera shots that follow the actors as they move about in the carefully fashioned environment.  Often over the lengths of these shots, the movement of the characters is managed so as to maintain a balanced visual composition. 

In particular in Ugetsu, there is a feeling of the characters almost being captive victims of their environments.  This is achieved by the extensive use of elevated camera angles looking down on the events depicted.”
This is also true in Sansho the Bailiff, where a large number of elevated, high-angle shots look  down on the action to situate the characters and lock them into their environmental contexts.  As such, it offers an unconscious visual reminder that we are never as free as we think we are. 

Note that Mizoguchi’s embedding characters into the environment is not quite the same thing as what we would normally call expressionism.  Expressionism usually presents an environment that reflects the emotional state of the narrator.  It is very subjective and affecting. But Mizoguchi’s visual world is not so clearly subjective, and what it offers is a complex web of people and context that is a bit more detached.  This comes about due to the relative paucity of closeups and point-of-view shots in Mizoguchi’s camera settings.

Sansho the Bailiff’s narrative passes through five phases.  Throughout this tale there are emphatic events of cruelty, which are not presented so much as individual acts on the part of evil characters, but as indications of the way the society normally operates. This is simply the brutal patriarchal world in which they all live.  I will label these cruelty moments in the story with “(Cr)”.

1.  The Taira Family on the Way to Tsukushi

The film begins with exiled governor Masauji Taira’s family traveling by foot to visit him, whom they haven’t seen in six years.  The traveling party consists of his wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), his 13-year-old son Zushiô, his 8-year-old daughter Anju, and the elderly family maid Ubatake.  Note that Kinuyo Tanaka was very regularly the star performer in Mizoguchi’s later films, and she came to symbolize  Mizoguchi’s nuanced portrayals of womanhood in Japan.  She also starred in Mizoguchi’s Women of the Night (1948), The Lady of Musashino (1951), Life of Oharu (1952), and Ugetsu (1953), and accordingly their joint creation of a romantic image of feminine sensitivity has been compared to that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich.

During their journey, Tamaki has flashback memories of when she last saw her husband six years earlier.  Masauji (played by Masao Shimizu) had resisted a military general’s call for higher taxes on rice and for peasants to be conscripted into the army.  For this Masauji was removed from office and exiled to Tsukushi.  Prior to his departure a large group of peasants noisily protest at the government in  support of Masauji, which provokes the general to order that all the protesters be killed (Cr).

When Masauji last bid farewell to his family (his family were instructed to go live with Tamaki’s brother in Iwashiro), he told his son Zushiô that whatever happens, he should always remember his fundamental maxims:
    Without mercy man is like a beast. 
    Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. 
    Men are created equal.
    Everyone is entitled to their happiness.
Then he gave Zushiô his precious amulet of Kwannon (Guanyin), the Mahayana Buddhist “Goddess of Mercy”.  This image of universal compassion and mercy was Mizoguchi’s important addition to this story.

Returning from the flashback, Tamaki continues leading her children on their journey, and there is a memorably atmospheric 64-second shot of them making their way through a meadow of tall reeds.  Eventually they have to camp outside for the night even though they have been warned about bandits and slave traders in the area. 

A seemingly kindly priestess visits their camp and offers them shelter and arrangements to shorten their journey to Tsukushi by taking a boat. But this turns out to be treachery, as the boaters kidnap the family and drown the servant Ubatake (Cr). Tamaki is forcibly taken to the island of Sado to be a prostitute, and the two children are taken to town to be sold as slaves.

2.  Zushiô and Anju in the Town
Zushiô and Anju are now sold to Sansho the Bailiff (Eitarô Shindô), who ruthlessly operates a large estate owned by the Minister of the Right.  Sansho’s brutal administration is much appreciated by the central government, whose visiting official praises Sansho for his ability to extract taxes from the poor people. We see how he operates when a female slave, Namiji (Kimiko Tachibana), is mistakenly accused of trying to run away, and Sansho personally and excruciatingly brands the poor screaming woman on the forehead with a molten cattle brand (Cr).  Sansho’s son, Taro (Akitake Kôno), silently watches this barbarity in disgust and decides to befriend the new young slaves, Zushiô and Anju.  He gives them new names and urges them to escape the compound when they grow older.  Then he departs the estate, himself, to pursue his own course.

3.  Ten Years Later

Zushiô (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) are now ten years older but still slaves. Zushiô, who has become a hardened opportunist and has forgotten his father’s maxims, figures his best course of action is to loyally serve Sansho – he is shown now willingly cattle-branding a poor suffering 70-year-old slave for some minor offence (Cr). 

Anju overhears a newly arrived slave singing a sad lament that features the names of her and her  brother [6]:
    Zushiô, how I long for you.
    Isn’t life torture?
    Anju, how I long for you.
    Isn’t life torture?
    So miserable as I am sold away.
    Boatmen quietly row away.
When she asks the girl where the song comes from, she is told that it was the song of a courtesan on Sado named Nakagimi.

Meanwhile Tamaki (apparently renamed Nakagimi) is shown desperately trying to escape from the island.  As punishment for such insolence, her master orders that her Achilles’s tendons be cut, leaving her a cripple (Cr). 

Back in Sansho’s estate, Zushiô and Anju are ordered to take their friend, the ill slave Namiji, up to a mountain and leave her there to die (Cr).  Anju sees this rare opportunity to go outside the estate’s walls as a chance for the two of them to escape.  She convinces her hitherto cynical and reluctant brother to run away and carry Namiji on his back, while she stalls their overseers.  Before Zushiô rushes off, she gives him back the Kwannon amulet that he had discarded.

When Sansho hears about Zushiô’s escape, he orders Anju to be tortured to reveal where Zushiô went (Cr), but the young woman has a plan for that eventuality.  Knowing that she will not be able to withstand Sansho’s torture, she commits suicide first, by drowning herself in a nearby lake.

Zushiô makes it to a nearby Buddhist temple, where Sansho’s son Taro is now a monk.  Taro shelters them and revives Namiji with medicine.  When Zushiô tells Taro that he wants to go to the capital Kyoto to reveal the inhuman conditions at Sansho’s estate, Taro tell him that he, too, once wanted to change the world, but he became disillusioned when he saw how thoroughly selfish and corrupt the world is.   It is better to withdraw and become a monk, he tells Zushiô.

But Zushiô, who is now a changed man and is once again inspired by is father’s maxims and Kwannon’s message of compassion,  is not to be dissuaded and rushes off alone to Kyoto.

4. Zushiô’s Public Mission
When Zushiô arrives in Kyoto and approaches the governmental Chief Advisor, he is immediately imprisoned as a nuisance.  But the Chief Advisor, a powerful but humane man, recognizes Zushiô’s Kwannon amulet as a valuable icon once belonging to his own family that was given to the Taira family.  He has Zushiô released, because he must be the son of Masauji Taira.  Since Zushiô is now recognized as a noble, the Chief Advisor appoints him to be the governor of Tango, the province where Sansho the Bailiff’s estate happens to be located.  Zushiô immediately expresses his mission to the Chief Advisor: to abolish slavery in his new domain. The Chief Advisor (and later, in an expressive 84-second shot, Zushiô’s new judicial minister), warns him that his decree of slavery abolition will not be enforceable on government-owned estates, such as that run by Sansho. But Zushiô is adamant to go ahead with it.

Zushiô also sadly learns that his father recently passed away, and before leaving for Tango, he makes a respectful visit to his father’s grave.  There he is further inspired along his virtuous path by hearing that Masauji Taira was widely known to be kind to everyone he met, especially to unfortunate peasants, whom he taught to read and write. 

When Zushiô arrives in Tango, he immediately announces his decree and has public signs posted to its effect, much to the jubilation of the slaves and the consternation of the slaveholding masters.  When Sansho orders his men to destroy the public signs, Zushiô is able to execute his authority to have Sansho arrested for destroying government property.  Sansho and his family are quickly exiled.

5. Zushiô’s Personal Mission
After learning of Anju’s sacrificial death and watching the newly liberated and unruly peasants sack and burn Sansho’s palace, Zushiô knows that a long-term role inside the oppressive and exploitative governmental administration is not the place for him.  He has managed to place his stake in the ground for the rights of man (slavery was finally officially abolished in Japan in 1590) and accomplished what he had set out to do, but now he resigns from his high position.  His path must lie in a more humble and Kwannon-inspired direction.

He goes to Sado in search of his mother, and after some wrong turns (including an adroit 82-second shot of his interaction with a false “Nakagimi”)  eventually finds the now enfeebled and nearly blind Tamaki lying on the beach and singing her lamenting song about her lost children.  The final eight minutes of the film show their heartrending reunion.  He tearfully informs her that Masauji and Anju have passed away, and then begs her forgiveness for having resigned his governorship in order to be true to his father’s teachings.  She assures him that she knows he has followed his father’s teaching, and that is why they have been able to meet again.

The ending of Sansho the Bailiff is funereal but still one of the most moving closures in film history.  What has been achieved is not justice, revenge, or fulfillment.  Instead, one is overwhelmed with the sense of total compassion that Guanyin/Kwannon summons in us and, like love itself, cannot be accounted for by our present-day objectivist scientific theories. 

There is also, as I mentioned above, a political theme to this film, as well.  In the aftermath of a devastating war, Japanese society and culture was still at this time reconsidering its traditional authoritarian structure, which is a foundation for laudable discipline but can also be unmindful of human feelings and aspirations.  Masauji Taira’s maxims in fact remind us of the US Declaration of Independence, which asserts,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happiness is not guaranteed in this reckoning, but the freedom to pursue happiness is seen as an unalienable human right. Ultimately, this idea of the universal rights of men and women is something that has emerged worldwide from our rational thinking and from the inner recognition of our human feelings for compassion.  Regrettably, these notions of humanity are still politically under threat today from people who are little different from Sansho the Bailiff.  This film reminds us that our modern political notions of human fairness for the common good are ultimately founded on our attendance to the human heart.

Overall, however, the film has a more profound focus than the political.  It’s compass covers all of human existence, including the spiritual level.  Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scene has integrated the entire world into a revelation of how compassion underlies our truly human being.  Crucial to this is the cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa, who during his career also worked with Kurosawa and Ozu. It is said that Miyagawa was given considerable freedom to devise his own shots during the filming [7]. Also essential is the hauntingly moody music of Fumio Hayasaka.  Everything in this film’s winding path lead to that soul-wrenching final scene when our hearts are exposed and we are rededicated to the magic of compassion-filled existence.  This, it is important to note, does not mean withdrawal in the fashion of Taro’s renunciation of the external world, but compassion-filled engagement with everyone one meets – in the fashion of first Masauji and at the end Zushiô.

  1.  “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  2. Mark Le Fanu, Sansho the Bailiff: The Lessons of Sansho”, The Criterion Collection, (27 February 2013). 
  3. David Williams, “Kenji Misoguchi, Sansho the Baliff/Sanshô Dayû”, (XV:5), Goldenrod Handouts, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Buffalo Film Seminars, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (25 September 2007), (selection from World Film Directors, John Wakeman (ed.), The H.W. Wilson Co., NY, (1987)). 
  4. Michael Sragow, “Sansho the Bailiff”, The Criterion Collection, (23 October 1994).  
  5. The Film Sufi, “”Ugetsu” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1953)", The Film Sufi, (31 January 2016).   
  6. J. Thomas Rimer’s 1977 translation of Ogai Mori’s story that is included in the Criterion Collection DVD of the film, has the following lyrics for this song:     

            My Anju, I yearn for you.
                     Fly away!
            My Zushiô, I yearn for you.
                     Fly away!
            Living birds, if you are living still,
                     Fly, fly far away!
            I will not chase you.
  7. Tadao Sato, “Simplicity”, Sansho the Bailiff (DVD), The Criterion Collection (2013).

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