It’s embarrassing when you have to admit that you’ve never seen a movie like Sansho the Bailiff. At least, it is for a film critic. There’s an unspoken understanding that film critics have seen every classic movie ever made, but that’s a lie. If you’re doing this professionally you have a certain obligation to have seen at least “most” of them, but there are so many films of note, within one critics’ circle or another, that catching up with every single one of them is pretty difficult, particularly when you have to watch every new movie that comes out as well. So a few of these bad boys slip through the cracks, but that’s okay. That’s what the Criterion Collection is for.
The Criterion Collection is a rather saintly organization that puts out films that, love ‘em or hate ‘em, have an important place in the cinema landscape. You feel like you need to know more about movies? Watch any Criterion DVD or Blu-ray you can find (or Laser Disc, if can still actually play those). The majority of their releases come complete with special features from filmmakers, historians and other individuals of note who want to take you by the hand and explain the greater significance of each movie. Sansho the Bailiff is no exception. I knew next to nothing going into the film, other than its impressive reputation, and a vague sense – from the judicial slant of the title as well as the cover, which features the silhouetted figure holding a sword – that it was a samurai movie. That last part was way off base.
Sansho the Bailiff is actually a rich and depressing drama about the family of a feudal Japanese governor, who are exiled after their patriarch dares to prioritize the plight of the poor over the rich ruling class. It is on this journey that Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and her children, Zushio and Anju, are kidnapped and sold into, for Tamaki, prostitution, and for the two young children, slavery. Zushio and Anju become the property of Sansho the Bailiff (actually, “Sansho the Steward” is probably a less misleading translation), who treats his slaves like cattle, branding them and caring little about whether they live or die, so long as they serve their purpose. Zushio and Anju grow up into actors Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kyôko Kagawa, but Sansho’s oppression drives out the goodness of Zushio’s father’s teachings. Unlike his sister, Zushio succumbs to Sansho’s indoctrination and casually assists in his fellow slaves’ torture. But when the opportunity to escape arises, it’s Zushio who falls into a series of circumstances that test film’s competing philosophies of apathetic practicality vs. absolute mercy.
Sansho the Bailiff has a “message,” and when looked at objectively, it’s a pretty obvious one. Being good to people is good, and being bad to people is bad. But director Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu) is careful to frame the events of the film as a fable, taking place in "medieval times when Japan had not yet emerged from the Dark Ages and mankind had yet to awaken as human beings,” according to the opening title scrawl. Sansho the Bailiff is no familiar tale of man’s cruelty to man, it is actually the very first tale of mercy, demonstrating the impossible road to common decency, taken by heroes who stood alone against a world of sadistic self-indulgence. It takes place in an era where being merciful was a radical political notion, and where the world was specifically structured to destroy anyone who valued goodness above just going with the flow.
It is also – and this is very important – and immensely moving film on any traditional level. The oppression of the good, who then journey through Hell to come out with some tiny semblance of victory (very, very tiny, in Sansho the Bailiff), is one of the great dramatic cruxes of storytelling. Where Sansho the Bailiff feels particularly daring is in its refusal to provide the ultimate catharsis, unlike other classic martyr allegories like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or even On the Waterfront. The conclusion of Kenji Mizoguchi’s opus is one of the most emotional and heartbreaking on record, and while it allows for some semblance of satisfaction, it never claims that its heroes were successful in changing the world.
Sansho the Bailiff looks incredible on Blu-ray – the standard for Criterion releases – and comes armed with multiple extras explaining the film’s artistic value and historical context. Previously recorded interviews with the film’s co-star, Kyôko Kagawa, the first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka and film critic Tadao Sato reveal stories of the production and the significance of director Kenji Mizoguchi, and Japanese literature scholar Jeffrey Angles contributes a detailed audio commentary track explaining the film’s historical context and artistic ambitions. Sansho the Bailiff on Blu-ray also includes an essay by Mark Le Fanu, and two different versions of the original story on which the film was based, including Ogai Mori’s Sansho the Steward and an earlier interpretation based upon its oral history.
Sansho the Bailiff is a striking examination of the enduring battle between sympathy and apathy, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s elegant direction and rich melodrama keeps the film vital nearly 60 years after its original release. Criterion strikes again with another top notch release.