Sansho the Bailiff opens with an unusual act of political generosity that subsequently conjures years of perversely disproportionate social punishment. For defending the rights of his people, a feudal Japanese governor is exiled by his lord to a distant province, and his wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), and children, Zushio (Masahiko Kato) and Anju (Keiko Enami), eventually undertake a journey across the countryside to find him. After years of camping and hiding out, the former governor's family is betrayed by a priestess and sold into slavery. Tamaki becomes a high-priced courtesan in Sado, and the children are sent to toil on an estate overseen by the notorious bailiff Sansho (Eitaro Shindo), a master who earns the good graces of the Ministry of the Right with a lucrative productivity he maintains with an iron-handed leadership based on unwavering cruelty.
As the aforementioned passage may suggest, large portions of Sansho the Bailiff are considerably wrenching. The adult Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), who calls himself Mutsu-Waka while in slavery, has grown monstrously pragmatic, dispensing brutal punishments to fellow slaves that Sansho's kinder son, Taro (Akitake Kôno), can't bring himself to execute. Anju (Kyôko Kagawa), who now calls herself Shinobu, despairing over her brother's spiritual erosion, attempts to remind Zushio of their father's teachings, which most memorably include the haunting and oft-quoted sentiment: "Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness."
The narrative is driven by Zushio and Anju's increasingly demanding attempts to follow their father's counsel, to behave civilly in a world dominated by beasts. As in films as varied as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Grand Illusion, Fires on the Plain, and Au hasard Balthazar, Sansho the Bailiff is one of those exquisite masterpieces that testifies to the nourishing value of simplicity in the face of incomprehensible atrocity. As Mark Le Fanu writes in his excellent essay included with this Criterion Blu-ray, the film quietly refutes all methodology and ideology, even those fundamentally more democratic beliefs that align with its humanist philosophies.
Along with Jean Renoir and Carl Dreyer, Kenji Mizoguchi is one of the most humane of great directors, and his methods of filmmaking are similarly confident and deceptively invisible. Sansho the Bailiff, like Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari, merges the expressiveness of silent-film imagery with an immersive natural sound design. Like a number of Japanese filmmakers, Mizoguchi favors compositions rooted in the traditions of scroll paintings, that stress the vertical rather than the horizontal dimensions of the image; a method that effectively informs, in particular, the staging of the sequences that are set on Sansho's estate. The feeling of imprisonment, of slaves nearly stacked on top of one another in the fashion of any other possession indifferently regarded by its owner, is especially vivid, which further humanizes Zushio's initial, and shocking, loss of faith.
Mizoguchi's mise-en-scène also emphasizes the titanic act of will and faith that fuels Zushio's redemption as well as Anju's disturbingly poetic act of sacrifice. Some have wondered why Sansho the Bailiff was named after a venal character who appears in less than half the film's running time, but it's fairly obvious that the unrelenting taskmaster is a symbol meant to indicate life's inexplicable and arbitrary unfairness, as well as suggest the obstacles that must be internally transcended in order to maintain dignity and a sense of common decency.
Yet, Sansho isn't just a symbol, as Mizoguchi doesn't deny this man his humanity. At his most repulsive, Sansho is also vulnerable to pride, which ultimately reflects self-loathing rooted in a class system. The moment when a representative of the Ministry visits Sansho's estate to congratulate him on his productivity is one of the greatest and most challenging scenes in the film, as you see that Sansho, who we've come to regard as a monster, is as enslaved to notions of an antiquated Japanese caste system as anyone else (though he admittedly lives in considerably greater comfort than many). To rise to the plane of empathy required to recognize Sansho's tarnished humanity is to earn the kind of deeply moving grace that Zushio and Tamaki ultimately achieve in what is understandably regarded as one of the greatest endings in all of cinema. There's a reason Sansho the Bailiff is often greeted by critics and audiences with something akin to rapture: It's a work that divorces the existential riddles of faith from regimented dogma, favoring instead the practical challenges, contradictions, and ambiguities of life as it's often lived.
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This Blu-ray doesn't offer the transformative A/V presentation of recent Criterion releases such as Rashomon or On the Waterfront, but it still boasts a solid transfer that improves on previous releases of Sansho the Bailiff. The image is soft in places, particularly in the background, but this is partially representative of Kenji Mizoguchi's intentions as well as the conditions that marked the production of the film. However, the blacks are generally sharp, and the foreground is often remarkably clear, which helps to preserve the filmmaker's sophisticated visual scheme that, in part, reflects the influence of Japanese scroll paintings. The 1.0 audio track is occasionally flat, but has been impressively scrubbed of previously audible white noise that's often inherent in prints of older films.
Jeffrey Angles's audio commentary has been carried over from Criterion's previous DVD edition of the film, but it's a terrific, informative listen that's worth the repetition. Angles discusses Sansho the Bailiff's themes and meanings on a near shot by shot basis, relating how Kenji Mizoguchi subtly designed each image to foreshadow future plot developments as well as resonate with numerous symbols. (The opening scene, for instance, in which a young Zushio hurries ahead of his mother only to double back and rejoin her, cannily anticipates the film's celebrated conclusion.) The culture of slavery that characterized the Heian period of feudal Japan and its influence on the film is also discussed, as well as a number of other contexts including Mizoguchi's recurring theme of oppressed women. The short interviews with critic Tadao Sato, assistant director Tokuzô Tanaka, and actress Kyōko Kagawa cover much of the same ground, but they're still worthy featurettes that include Tanaka's ironic insistence that Mizoguchi was originally more concerned with the slave culture and the character of Sansho than he was with Zushio and Anju's plight; Mizoguchi apparently never entirely agreed with the film's reputation as a masterpiece. Rounding out the package is a beautiful booklet that includes an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu as well as the stories that inspired the film.
This Blu-ray doesn't quite represent the Criterion Collection at its transformative best, but that's admittedly a tall order anyway. There's never any shame in double-dipping on a film as sublime and heart-wrenching as Sansho the Bailiff.