While less known than his equally revered contemporaries Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, the filmography of Kenji Mizoguchi may arguably be the more successfully varied. Criterion remasters his 1954 title, Sansho the Bailiff for Blu-ray this month, one of the auteur’s most celebrated works, and one that ends his three year succession of winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival (he also won for The Life of Oharu in 1952 and Ugetsu in 1953). This was his eighty-first feature film, and he would make only five more features due to his death in 1956. While this is considered one of his top works, Mizoguchi apparently didn’t think the same, citing studio interference in not being able to make the film he had set out to create. Despite its powerfully resonant emotional content, there does seem to be an odd struggle at work in regards to the focus of the film, which is as straightforward (and is indeed one of Mizoguchi’s most narratively concise films) as a fairy tale.
The basic premised is lifted from a children’s story by Ogai Mori, a classic tale passed down orally from generation to generation, set “before Japan emerged from the Dark Age.” An idealistic governor disobeys his feudal lord in defense of the peasants that live under his control and is thus cast into exile, leaving his wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and two children, Zushio and Anju to fend for themselves. While Tamaki is sold into prostitution, her children are sold into the slave trade and come to be owned by Sansho (Eitaro Shindo), a cruel and pitiless slave owner known for his vicious punishment of those who try to escape. A decade passes and Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and his sister Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) have now become fully grown. While Anju has remained a hopeful and idealistic being, Zushio has become a corrupted and vicious product of his environment. Laboring to advise her brother to remember the mantra of their father, namely that without mercy man is nothing but a beast, an opportunity for escape arises, leaving one of the siblings to make an altruistic sacrifice. While there is also a morsel of redemption for some members of the fallen family, this is a portrait of a cruel and unfair world, where vengeance is unattainable and resistance is futile.
Sansho the Bailiff shows Mizoguchi, with his frequent collaborating cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, in top form, his signature shared framing of actors integral to the scene. His shot compositions are sparse and carefully framed, here utilizing several gorgeous overhead shots. Between moments of harsh cruelty, there are unforgettable moments of poetic beauty, such as Tamaki and her young children on their first evening alone, wandering through tall, wispy blades of grass swaying gently back and forth. Or the exquisite sequence where mother is separated from her children, elaborately orchestrated with Tamaki being abducted via canoe. It’s evident that Mizoguchi didn’t wish us to be distracted by props or elaborate set pieces, forcing us to focus on the pain, suffering, and everlasting anguish of its unfortunate family.
Criterion restores this 2007 addition to their catalogue with a high-definition digital restoration, and the package is, without a doubt, quite marvelous. The special features, though noteworthy, are exactly the same as the previously released disc, including a dandy essay by Mark Le Fanou and two versions of the story upon which the film is based. Additionally, three worthwhile interviews from 2007 are still intact, from Assistant Director Tokuzo Tanaka, film critic Tadao Sato, and actress Kyoko Kagawa.
2007 Interview with Kyoko Kagawa
The legendary Kagawa, who also worked with Ozu and Kurosawa, opens up about Mizoguchi’s techniques. Apparently, Mizoguchi preferred to give the actors free reign in their interpretation, which he believed culled a more believable performance (which is also why he insisted on the use of long, extensive shots). If rehearsal went well, they would go directly into shooting the scene so as not to lose the feeling, the essence, of what they were creating. However, Mizoguchi was notoriously tedious and hard to please, which often challenged many of the actors he worked with.
2007 Interview with Tokuzo Tanaka
Tanaka cites that working as assistant director to Mizoguchi was both a blessing and a curse, and it was a working relationship that required him to learn certain “tics of persuasion.” Tanaka cites that the difficulty with Sansho was that, set during the Heian period, it had to be laboriously researched to avoid anachronistic details. Tanaka explains that Mizoguchi “tormented actors” with his techniques, and states that he was not fulfilled with Sansho, claiming the studio forced him to water down the film’s depiction of the slavery system.
2007 Interview with Tadao Sato
Film critic Tadao Sato discusses Mizoguchi’s upbringing in a lower class household, where his mother made significant sacrifices and his sister was sold as a geisha in order to support the family. Thus, Mizoguchi often seemed to atone for this in his films which often depicted women in rebellion to men, proving him to be a filmmaker far ahead of his time. Sato discusses that, like most films post WWII, Sansho also grapples with how society needs to change into a democracy. He also cites this as Mizoguchi’s simplest film.
There’s an odd absence at the center of the film, that being the depiction of the titular Sansho. He’s cruel, despicable, even monstrous. But beyond being a malevolent player at the crux of the film’s main drama, he’s hardly a key player, as the film really focuses on the trials and tribulations of the adult Zushio and Anju. Come to find, Mizoguchi had set out to make a film that focuses on Japan’s history with the slave trade, which ended up mutating via studio interference into the story of human hope and resilience that it came to be. By keeping the original title, Sansho thus becomes a terrible specter that haunts the entire tale, a name we are forced to utter and contend with in every reference to the film. No matter what the interference or studio meddling, Mizoguchi assured we won’t erase the terrible truth he really wished to explore. While Sansho the Bailiff is considered one of the most enduring classics of Japanese cinema, Mizoguchi revisits human slavery under the guise of prostitution more effectively in his 1956 swan song, Street of Shame. However, Sansho is an undeniably moving, exquisitely composed film.