Sansho the Bailiff

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Sansho the Bailiff
Sansho Dayu poster.jpg
Japanese theatrical release poster
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Produced by Masaichi Nagata
Written by Fuji Yahiro
Yoshikata Yoda
Mori Ōgai (story)
Starring Kinuyo Tanaka
Yoshiaki Hanayagi
Kyōko Kagawa
Eitarō Shindō
Music by Fumio Hayasaka
Tamekichi Mocizuki
Kinshichi Kodera
Cinematography Kazuo Miyagawa
Distributed by Daiei Film
Release dates
  • March 31, 1954 (1954-03-31)
Running time
124 minutes
Country Japan
Language Japanese

Sansho the Bailiff (山椒大夫 Sanshō Dayū?) is a 1954 Japanese period film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Based on a short story of the same name by Mori Ōgai, it tells the story of two aristocratic children sold into slavery. It is often considered one of Mizoguchi's finest films, along with Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu.[1] It bears his trademark interest in freedom, poverty and woman's place in society, and features beautiful images and long and complicated shots. The director of photography for this film was Mizoguchi's regular collaborator Kazuo Miyagawa.

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, it is known by its Japanese title Sanshō Dayū.[2]


Sansho the Bailiff is a jidai-geki, or historical film, set in the Heian period of feudal Japan. A virtuous governor is banished by a feudal lord to a far-off province. His wife and children are sent to live with her brother. Several years later, the wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), and children, Zushiō and Anju, 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 father.

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, out of the slave camp to be left to die in the wilderness due to her sickness. Anju accompanies them, and while they break branches to provide covering for the dying woman they recall their earlier childhood memories. 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 in the wilderness, he finds his old 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 a statuette of Kannon from Zushiō. 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 Sansho's manor is situated in.

As Governor of Tango, the first thing Zushiō does is to order 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 finds out 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 nearly blind, 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 assumes he is a trickster until he gives her their statuette. Zushiō tells her 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.



Sansho was the last of Mizoguchi's films to win an award at the Venice Film Festival, which brought him to the attention of Western critics and film-makers. It 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."[3] 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." [4]

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.


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.[2]


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