Sansho the Bailiff
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|Sansho the Bailiff|
Japanese theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Kenji Mizoguchi|
|Produced by||Masaichi Nagata|
|Screenplay by||Fuji Yahiro|
|Based on||"Sansho the Bailiff" by Mori Ōgai|
|Music by||Fumio Hayasaka|
|Edited by||Mitsuzo Miyata|
|Distributed by||Daiei Film|
Sansho the Bailiff (山椒大夫, Sanshō Dayū) (known by its Japanese title in the United Kingdom and Ireland) is a 1954 Japanese period film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Based on a 1915 short story of the same name by Mori Ōgai, which in turn was based on a legendary folklore, it follows two aristocratic children who are sold into slavery.
Sansho the Bailiff bears many of Mizoguchi's hallmarks, such as portrayals of poverty, a critical view of the place of women in contemporary Japan, 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.
Sansho the Bailiff is a jidai-geki, or historical film, set in the Heian period of feudal Japan, with the story depicted taking place in the latter part of the eleventh century on the Western time scale.
A virtuous governor is banished by a feudal lord to a far-off province. His wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), 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.
Several 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, working under horrific conditions and branded when they try to escape. The estate, protected under the Minister of the Right, is administered by the eponymous Sanshō (Eitarō Shindō), a bailiff (or steward). Sanshō's son Tarō (Akitake Kōno), the second-in-charge, is a much more humane master, and he convinces the two they must survive in the manor before they can escape to find their mother.
The children grow to young adulthood at the slave camp. Anju (Kyōko Kagawa) still believes in the teachings of her father, which advocate treating others with humanity, but Zushiō (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) has repressed his humanity, becoming one of the overseers who punishes other slaves, in the belief that this is the only way to survive. Anju hears a song from a new slave girl from Sado which mentions her and her brother in the lyrics. This leads 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 be left to die in the wilderness. Anju accompanies them, and while they break branches to provide covering for the dying woman, they recall their memories of their earlier childhood. At this point 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 into the wilderness, he finds his former mentor, Tarō – Sanshō's son – at an Imperial temple. Zushiō asks Tarō to take care of Namiji, who is recovering after being given medicine, so that he can go to Kyoto to appeal to the Chief Advisor on the appalling conditions of slaves. The Head Priest writes a letter for him as proof of who he is. Although initially refusing to see him, the Chief Advisor realizes the truth after seeing the statuette of Kannon that Zushiō has with him. He then tells Zushiō that his exiled father died the year before and offers Zushiō the post of the governor of Tango, the very province where Sanshō's manor is situated.
As Governor of Tango, the first thing Zushiō does is to issue an edict forbidding slavery both on public and private grounds. No one believes he can do this, since governors have no command over private grounds. Although Sanshō offers initial resistance (having his men destroy the signs which state the edict), Zushiō orders him and his men arrested, thus freeing the slaves. When he looks for Anju among Sanshō's slaves, he learns that his sister has 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 had done exactly what he had intended to do.
Zushiō leaves for Sado where he searches for his aged mother, whom he believes is still a courtesan. After hearing a man state that she has 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 exploring it with her fingers, in spite of her blindness. 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 and chose mercy toward others by freeing the slaves held by Sanshō. He tells his mother he has been true to his father's teachings, which she acknowledges poignantly.
- Kinuyo Tanaka – Tamaki
- Kyōko Kagawa – Anju
- Eitarō Shindō – Sanshō
- Yoshiaki Hanayagi – Zushiō
- Ichirō Sugai – Minister of Justice
- Ken Mitsuda – Chief Advisor to the Emperor Morozane Fujiwara
- Masahiko Tsugawa – Zushiō as a Boy
- Masao Shimizu – Masauji Taira
- Chieko Naniwa – Ubatake
- Kikue Mori – Priestess
- Akitake Kōno – Tarō
- Ryōsuke Kagawa – Ritsushi Kumotake
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).
Sansho is greatly revered by many critics.
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."
Writing for RogerEbert.com, 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."
Fred Camper, writing in The Little Black Book of Movies (edited by Chris Fujiwara), calls Sansho "one of the most devastatingly moving of films".
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.
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".
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.
It was adapted in 1961 into the anime film Anju and Zushiomaru, bearing the same name as the legend, produced by Toei, directed by Yabushita Taiji. It featured many supernatural anthropomorphic elements such as talking animals like Toei's other anime movies of that time.
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. Sansho was released by The Criterion Collection in Blu-ray in Region A on February 26, 2013.
- "Sansho Dayu page on the online "Masters of Cinema" catalogue of the distributor". Eureka. Retrieved 16 January 2013.
- "Kenji Mizoguchi". kotobank.jp (in Japanese). Retrieved 5 February 2021.
- Le Fanu, Mark. "Sansho the Bailiff: The Lessons of Sansho". Currents. The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 12 October 2013.
- Lane, Anthony (September 11, 2006). "Supermen: "Hollywoodland" and the films of Kenji Mizoguchi". The New Yorker.
- "Elected: 100 Must-See Foreign Films". rogerebert.com. 19 September 2007. Retrieved 5 February 2021.
- "Robin Wood's Top 10". criterion.com. 21 November 2008. Retrieved 5 February 2021.
- "Votes for Sansho Dayu (1954)". British Film Institute. Retrieved March 13, 2016.