I’m not at all sure how much I actually like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff—which I just saw for the first time—but I’d never question its place in film history (especially, Japanese film history), or the fact that it’s an ambitious, striking work that is certainly entertaining. I will say that it falls short of Mizoguchi’s 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu for me, though I’d be hard-pressed to actually call it inferior. It’s slightly surprising to find that the title refers not to any of its main characters, but to the film’s villain (Eitaro Shindo), a completely malevolent tyrant who runs a slave labor enterprise and thrives on cruelty for its own sake. It is into his clutches that the film’s principal characters fall early in the film, and it is on him that the vengeance of one of them, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) will fall. But the point of the film—at least its stated point—is to deal with man’s development as a human being by learning compassion. Frankly, this seemed more a stated thesis than anything the film actually proves—except in passing. However, it’s a good looking and involving film. Mizoguchi achieves a remarkable level of control in his imagery (even many of his exteriors have the quality of studio artistry), and his use of long dissolves (perhaps to distance himself from Kurosawa’s optical wipes?) is sometimes reminiscent of the work of Josef von Sternberg.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Sansho the Bailiff at 8 p.m. Friday, June 29 at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District, upstairs in the Railroad Library. Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com