This post is part of Japan-O-Rama at Paul’s awesome site Paragraph Film Reviews! Head over there for a paragraph version of my review, or stay here for the wordier and probably less effective version!
Sansho the Bailiff [山椒大夫 Sanshō Dayū] (1954)
AKA Legend of Bailiff Sansho, The Bailiff
Starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Kyoko Kagawa, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Eitaro Shindo, Ichiro Sugai, Ken Mitsuda, Masahiko Tsugawa, Masao Shimizu, Chieko Naniwa, Kikue Mori, Akitake Kono, Ryosuke Kagawa
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Expectations: High, but I don’t know anything about it.
Sansho the Bailiff trades heavily in very depressing subject matter, but its defining theme comes from a proverb spoken by our main character’s father in the first few minutes of the film. The father is the governor of a small province, but his kindness towards his subjects has led to him being transferred to a very out-of-the-way, undesirable location. His wife, Tamaki, and their two children (Zushio and Anju) are sent to live with his brother for a few years, but before they leave the father says a few words to Zushio.
“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.”
The words continue to resonate throughout the film. At times, they are far from our minds as the crushing despair that the family is put through takes precedence in our minds. But at other times, the words return as a glimmer of hope in the dark of night, reminding us to persevere and continue to hope for something better. The film is masterfully structured in this way, connecting the audience and the characters together at a core, human level.
What is interesting about the proverb is that while it is a reminder of hope throughout the film, it is also, in a way, the cause of the family’s troubles. If their father hadn’t been a just man, they never would have left their posh lifestyle as the governor’s family. It would be easy for Zushio in his darkest moments to condemn his father for his actions, wishing that his father could have embraced something other than mercy to help his family. Zushio never outwardly says anything like this, but at one point in the story he definitely has become the embodiment of the sentiment, losing sight of everything he once cherished.
But to focus specifically on the family’s strife ignores the good that Zushio’s father’s words had on the others around him. A kind man who helped peasants and taught the poor how to read and write may have inadvertently doomed his family to torture and suffering, but he also brightened many lives. Does the benefit to many outweigh the sadness of a few? I would say so, and Sansho the Bailiff teaches us this very well. It also teaches us, again through the use of the proverb, that no matter what obstacles and trials you go through, it is important to remain true to yourself. Do not compromise your key values, instead embrace them and become stronger through them.
The film is rather strangely titled after Sansho the Bailiff, though. Sansho is not the main character by any means, but he is a rather important one. Like the proverb states: without mercy, men are like beasts, and so Sansho is a rather beastly man, both physically and in his actions towards others. He isn’t a likeable character in the slightest, and naming the film after him seems like yet another slight on the kind governor’s family. But Zushio heard the words of his father at a young age, and like many things said to children, they didn’t immediately sink in. Through his interactions with Sansho, and the mercy shown to Zushio by certain other characters, Zushio comes to an understanding of the proverb in ways that even his father may not have intended or been able to teach him outright. Sansho is then cast in a new light, and becomes one of the defining people in Zushio’s life, helping to shape him into the man he becomes.
A true masterpiece, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff is a must-see for fans of classic and Japanese film, and a stunning picture that will haunt your soul. Just know going in that it’s a rough, emotionally fraught ride.