Sansho the Bailiff

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Sansho the Bailiff
Sansho Dayu poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byKenji Mizoguchi
Screenplay byFuji Yahiro
Yoshikata Yoda
Based on"Sansho the Bailiff" by Mori Ōgai
Produced byMasaichi Nagata
StarringKinuyo Tanaka
Yoshiaki Hanayagi
Kyōko Kagawa
Eitarō Shindō
CinematographyKazuo Miyagawa
Edited byMitsuzo Miyata
Music byFumio Hayasaka
Tamekichi Mochizuki
Kinshichi Kodera
Distributed byDaiei Film
Release date
  • March 31, 1954 (1954-03-31)
Running time
124 minutes

Sansho the Bailiff (Japanese: 山椒大夫, Hepburn: Sanshō Dayū, known by its Japanese title in the United Kingdom and Ireland[1]) is a 1954 Japanese period film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.[2] Based on a 1915 short story of the same name by Mori Ōgai (usually translated as "Sanshō the Steward" in English), which in turn was based on a folktale, it follows two aristocratic children who are sold into slavery.

Sansho the Bailiff bears many of Mizoguchi's hallmarks, such as portrayals of poverty and elaborately choreographed long takes – the director of photography for which was Kazuo Miyagawa, Mizoguchi's regular collaborator. Today, the film is often ranked alongside Ugetsu (1953) as one of Mizoguchi's finest works.[3]


Sansho the Bailiff is a jidai-geki set in the Heian period of feudal Japan, with the story taking place in the latter part of the eleventh century.

A virtuous governor is banished by a feudal lord to a far-off province. His wife, Tamaki, and children, Zushiō and Anju, are sent to live with her brother. Just before they are separated, Zushiō's father tells him, "Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others." He urges his son to remember his words and gives him a statuette of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy.

Years later, the wife and children journey to his exiled land but are tricked on the journey by a treacherous priestess. The mother is sold into prostitution in Sado and the children are sold by slave traders to a manorial estate in which slaves are brutalized and branded when they try to escape. The estate, protected under the Minister of the Right, is administered by the eponymous Sanshō. Sanshō's son Tarō, the second-in-charge, is a much more humane master and convinces the children to survive before they can escape to find their mother.

The children grow to young adulthood at the slave camp. Anju still believes in the teachings of her father but Zushiō has repressed his humanity, becoming one of the brutal overseers, believing that this is the only way to survive. At work, Anju hears a song from a new slave girl from Sado which mentions her and her brother in the lyrics, leading her to believe their mother is still alive. She tries to convince Zushiō to escape but he refuses, citing the difficulty and their lack of money.

Zushiō is ordered to take Namiji, an older woman who is acutely ill, out of the slave camp to die in the wilderness. Anju accompanies them and while they break branches to provide covering for the dying woman, they recall a similar act from their earlier childhood. Zushiō changes his mind and asks Anju to escape with him to find their mother. Anju asks him to take Namiji with him, convincing her brother she will stay behind to distract the guards. Zushiō promises to return for Anju. However, after Zushiō's escape, Anju commits suicide by walking into a lake, drowning herself so that she will not be tortured and forced to reveal her brother's whereabouts.

After Zushiō escapes, he finds Tarō at an Imperial temple. Zushiō asks him to care for Namiji so that he can go to Kyoto to appeal to the Chief Advisor regarding the appalling slave conditions. Although initially refusing to see him, the Chief Advisor realizes who Zushiō is after seeing his statuette of Kannon. He then tells Zushiō that his exiled father died the year before and offers him the post of the governor of Tango, the province where Sanshō's manor is situated.

As Governor of Tango, Zushiō issues an edict forbidding slavery on both public and private grounds. No one believes he can do this since governors have no power over private grounds. Although Sanshō offers initial resistance, Zushiō orders him and his men arrested, freeing the slaves. When he looks for Anju among Sanshō's slaves, he learns that his sister sacrificed herself for his freedom. The manor is burned down by the ex-slaves while Sanshō and his family are exiled. Zushiō resigns immediately afterwards, stating that he has done what he intended to do.

Zushiō goes to Sado for his aged mother, whom he believes is still a courtesan. After hearing a man state that she died in a tsunami, he goes to the beach she is supposed to have died on. He finds a decrepit old woman sitting on the beach singing the same song he heard years before. Realizing she is his mother, he reveals his identity to her, but Tamaki, who has gone blind, assumes he is a trickster until he gives her the statuette of Kannon, which she recognizes by touch. Zushiō tells her that both Anju and their father have died and apologizes for not coming for her in the pomp of his governor's post. Instead he followed his father's proverb, choosing mercy toward others by freeing Sanshō's slaves. He tells his mother he has been true to his father's teachings, which she acknowledges poignantly.


Actor Role
Kinuyo Tanaka Tamaki
Kyōko Kagawa Anju
Eitarō Shindō Sanshō
Yoshiaki Hanayagi Zushiō
Ichirō Sugai Minister of Justice Niō
Ken Mitsuda Fujiwara no Morozane
Masahiko Tsugawa Zushiō as a Boy
Masao Shimizu Taira no Masauji
Chieko Naniwa Ubatake
Kikue Mori Priestess
Akitake Kōno Tarō
Ryōsuke Kagawa Donmyō Ritsushi


Sansho won the Silver Lion for best direction in the 15th Venice International Film Festival, which once again brought Mizoguchi to the attention of Western critics and film-makers, after The Life of Oharu (International Award, 1952) and Ugetsu (Silver Lion, 1953).

In the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight & Sound polls, Sansho the Bailiff came in at 59th in the critics' poll, with 25 critics having voted for the film.[4] The Sight & Sound is regarded as one of the most important of the "greatest ever film" polls. In 2022, Sight and Sound repeated the poll, and Sansho the Bailiff came in joint 75th place, tied with Spirited Away and Imitation of Life.[5]

The New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote in his September 2006 profile on Mizoguchi, "I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal."[6]

Writing for, Jim Emerson extolled the movie: "I don't believe there's ever been a greater motion picture in any language. This one sees life and memory as a creek flowing into a lake out into a river and to the sea."[7]

Fred Camper, writing in The Little Black Book of Movies (edited by Chris Fujiwara), calls Sansho "one of the most devastatingly moving of films".

Martin Scorsese included Sansho on his list of "39 Essential Foreign Films for a Young Filmmaker."[8]

Film critic Robin Wood, asked to make a Top 10 list for the website of The Criterion Collection, listed Sansho at number 1, calling it "[a] strong candidate for Greatest Film Ever Made. A perfect and profound masterpiece, rivaled only by its near companion Ugetsu.[9]

Professor Richard Peña (Columbia University), in his entry for Sansho in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, calls Sansho "one of the great emotional and philosophical journeys ever made for the cinema", and "[p]ossibly the high point in an unbroken string of masterpieces made by Kenji Mizoguchi shortly before his death".

Stage production[edit]

In 1990 producers Robert Michael Geisler and John Roberdeau (Streamers, The Thin Red Line) commissioned director Terrence Malick to write a stage play based on Sansho the Bailiff. A private workshop of the play was undertaken in fall 1993 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was directed by Andrzej Wajda with sets and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, sound by Hans Peter Kuhn, choreography by Suzushi Hanayagi, and a large all-Asian cast, including Bai Ling. A smaller-scale workshop was mounted by Geisler-Roberdeau under Malick's own direction in Los Angeles in spring 1994. Plans to produce the play on Broadway were postponed indefinitely.

Anime film[edit]

A separate animated film, Anju and Zushiomaru, was produced in 1961 by Toei, directed by Taiji Yabushita and Yuugo Serikawa. It featured many supernatural anthropomorphic elements such as talking animals like Toei's other anime movies of that time.


Home media[edit]

Sansho was unavailable on DVD in the English-speaking world until 2007, when it was released by The Criterion Collection in Region 1, while the Masters of Cinema released it in Region 2 under the title Sanshō Dayū in a double DVD twinpack with Gion Bayashi. Masters of Cinema re-released the single film in Blu-ray and DVD in a Dual Format combo in April 2012.[1] Sansho was released by The Criterion Collection in Blu-ray in Region A on February 26, 2013.


  1. ^ a b "Sansho Dayu page on the online "Masters of Cinema" catalogue of the distributor". Eureka. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
  2. ^ "Kenji Mizoguchi". (in Japanese). Retrieved 5 February 2021.
  3. ^ Le Fanu, Mark. "Sansho the Bailiff: The Lessons of Sansho". Currents. The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
  4. ^ "Votes for Sansho Dayu (1954)". British Film Institute. Retrieved March 13, 2016.
  5. ^ "The Greatest Films of All Time". British Film Institute. Retrieved 19 January 2023.
  6. ^ Lane, Anthony (September 11, 2006). "Supermen: "Hollywoodland" and the films of Kenji Mizoguchi". The New Yorker.
  7. ^ "Elected: 100 Must-See Foreign Films". 19 September 2007. Retrieved 5 February 2021.
  8. ^ "Martin Scorsese Creates a List of 39 Essential Foreign Films for a Young Filmmaker". Open Culture. 15 October 2014. Archived from the original on February 7, 2015. Retrieved 1 February 2015.
  9. ^ "Robin Wood's Top 10". 21 November 2008. Retrieved 5 February 2021.

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