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Sansho the Bailiff

Movie Information

In Brief: Kenji Mizoguchi's highly-regarded 1954 classic Sansho the Bailiff is a striking film to look at and it tells a fascinating, compelling story -- with the feel of a legend -- that is meant to explore the origins of compassion and humanity. How successful it is in its lofty aims is open to debate, but it's never less than entertaining and involving.
Score:

Genre: Drama
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyôko Kagawa, Eitarô Shindô, Akitake Kôno
Rated: NR

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

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

6 thoughts on “Sansho the Bailiff

  1. Sean R. Moorhead

    ItТs slightly surprising to find that the title refers not to any of its main characters, but to the filmТs villain

    This is an interesting point. I’m not familiar with the numerous versions of the original fable, but I think most of them share that title. (As I understand it, a few of them are intended to explain the birth of a local mountain goddess.) There’s also an animated version called Anju and Zushio-Maru, which I don’t believe has ever been available in the U.S.

    Frankly, this seemed more a stated thesis than anything the film actually proves

    I’ve already made my thoughts on Sansho clear in the Weekly Reeler, but I feel compelled to add that it’s always bothered me philosophically that Zushio is ostensibly learning the importance of mercy…and yet he receives without comment the news that Sansho and his entire family have been banished just as his own family was at the beginning of the film.

  2. Ken Hanke

    he receives without comment the news that Sansho and his entire family have been banished just as his own family was at the beginning of the film.

    That and the fact he’s so indifferent to the house burning, seeming to find that just fine and not a huge, ignorant waste bothered me.

    By the way, I find it interesting that the trailer struck me as more visually impressive than the movie itself did. I wonder if this is a second viewing kind of thing.

  3. Sean R. Moorhead

    That and the fact heТs so indifferent to the house burning, seeming to find that just fine and not a huge, ignorant waste bothered me.

    Especially since his father’s ill-defined teachings are supposed to elevate the peasants out of barbarism!

    On a related note, the characterization of the Heian Period as an inhumane age in which mercy was unknown is…amusing. I mean, there’s no denying that there was gross inequity during the Heian, but it’s generally considered the era of high culture.

    By the way, I find it interesting that the trailer struck me as more visually impressive than the movie itself did. I wonder if this is a second viewing kind of thing.

    It’s entirely possible. I know that I didn’t care for the film at all until I revisited it recently. I don’t deny that there’s some childish resentment there at the fact that when I became interested in Asian film, Mizo was always treated as the artist nonpareil despite the fact that a number of other directors were working in a similar idiom.

    These days, of course, Western criticism is all about Ozu, but I find it difficult to resent Ozu.

    For me, the appeal of Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scшne is based in part on my preexisting interest in Japanese illustration. A lot of his films look like woodblock prints to me. (That aesthetic is the only redeeming quality of the otherwise monotonously high-minded propaganda vehicle The Forty-Seven Ronin.)

    Another thing that’s always impressed me about Sansho (especially compared to American films from the same decade) is the location filming. I think Mizo’s greatest asset as a visual stylist is his ability to locate the human body within nature — in the scene of the mother staggering along the cliff side, for instance. The soft focus diffuses your attention so that you’re equally aware of her hair blowing in the wind and of the texture of that gnarled pine at her left. It’s sort of like the way Hiroshige’s fine, unmodulated brushstrokes unify every element of a print.

  4. Ken Hanke

    It doesn’t take much to impress me if the comparison is going to be US films of the 1950s. That said, one of the more interesting things about Sansho to me was that I often wasn’t sure if I was seeing something done on location or done in a studio. I know nothing about the making of the film, so I have no idea if it’s a mix of location and soundstage, or if the more intimate scenes are just so carefullly lit that they feel like studio work.

  5. luluthebeast

    Mizoguchi was such a stickler for lighting, placement and rehearsal that many times an outdoor shot would look like a studio shot. These days he would probably be accused of having OCD, but he got what he wanted.

  6. Ken Hanke

    These days he would probably be accused of having OCD, but he got what he wanted.

    I have often thought that nowadays Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich would be diagnosed as co-dependent and in therapy rather than working it out by giving us some of the most remarkable movies ever made.

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