Friday, September 08, 2017

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Sanshô dayû, Japan, 124 minutes
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Ogai Mori, Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Kinshichi Kodera, Tamekichi Mochizuki
Editor: Mitsuzo Miyata
Cast: Eitaro Shindo, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Masao Shimizu, Akitaka Kono, Keiko Enami, Masahiko Kato

Based on a children's book published in 1915, which was in turn based on a folk tale dating back a millennium, Sansho the Bailiff is a calculating and cruel tour de force of casual human depravity. As if offering balm for its horrors, the film is silvery beautiful, with languorous elaborately framed shots like formal works of art, using a full spectrum of glowing grayscale tones. The beauty blunts only somewhat the harsh black and white realities of this story, which is less about Sansho and more about two children, Zushio and his younger sister Anju, and their parents. Even the folk tale puts Sansho in the title, however. He may be a sideline character but he represents a way of life—the strong man way, with vast wealth, slaves, concubines, and a brutal style.

That's part of Japanese history, from the country's feudal Heian period that provides the movie's setting. What's less part of Japanese history (or at least until halfway through the 20th century) also has a good deal to do with what makes Sansho the Bailiff so cunningly effective. Zushio's and Anju's father, Masauji Taira, is a kind of post-Jesus pre-Enlightenment savant. "Men are created equal," he gently impresses on Zushio. "Everyone is entitled to their happiness." Or at least the pursuit of it, I'm sure. Only two years before the release of this movie, Japan was still occupied by a culturally heavy-handed US which favored such sentiments. It's our good fortune (or maybe my American bias) that it works so well for this movie and story.

Appointed governor of a territory, Masauji Taira uses his power to set peasants free and put them on a road to better lives. Ultimately, of course, that doesn't play well with his superiors, who all things being equal happen to prefer slave labor because it works out better for them, thank you very much. He is punished by separation from his family and exile. The children and their mother, his wife, will never see him alive again and neither do we, after about the first 15 minutes. Further downhill events follow, relentlessly.

If there's an object lesson in Sansho the Bailiff, it's that one should try hard to be born into the right class and not the wrong one. In fact, that very advice is given by a despairing woman as she sees a failing friend hauled away to die alone in the woods. "When you're reincarnated, be born to a good family!" she shrieks desperately. "Be born to a rich family!" It's really quite an amazing litany of appalling developments that goes on here. What a harsh world. The privations are incredible. Long hours of work and beatings are the norm and only the starting point for the serving classes. Runaways are branded on their foreheads, or the tendons in their ankles are cut to hobble them. Zushio's and Anju's mother is kidnapped and turned out as a courtesan. Zushio is 13 and Anju 8 when they are sold into slavery. There are some spooky ghost touches in Sansho, but most of the chill is from the human behavior. Thankfully the worst is not shown on screen, though we often hear the screams.

Sansho the Bailiff is thus remarkably effective at being depressing, not to mention shocking, and it skillfully maintains a tempo that only builds and overtops itself as it goes. The last scenes may well be the most shattering of all. I don't like the effect this movie can have on me—flinging me into pits of despair and meaninglessness kinds of moods—but I respect the well-tuned engine it is for accomplishing the purpose. Credit here to screenwriters Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda for shaping the material so expertly, and all credit to director Kenji Mizoguchi of course for recognizing the power of a folk tale in the first place as foundation for a narrative structure. Making the father figure a champion of democracy only adds to the tale's tension, ratcheting up the contrasts. This and a number of other small but effective points suggest Mizoguchi knew exactly what he was doing as he made this.

Interestingly, then, a 2000s interview in the DVD extras with assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka suggests that Mizoguchi himself was not happy with the result. According to Tanaka, Mizoguchi wanted to focus more on Sansho and the historical system of slavery. But studio heads were adamant about steering him toward the (somewhat) redemptive story of the children, which he resented. In other words, if I'm understanding this, Mizoguchi wanted to make it even harsher and more unsettling. Well, all right. At least that explains the strangely misleading title—maybe older versions of the story focus more on Sansho too. But this could also be a case where the collaboration and not just the director or any single person accomplished something that none of them alone could have. I mean, "they're sugarcoating it" is really not what you're going to think about Sansho the Bailiff. It won't be a first impression and it won't be something you come to later. There's not much pleasant about this one except the execution, and that's everything.

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