Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 10 September 2007
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Sanshô Dayû is one of those films for whose sake the cinema exists—just as it perhaps exists for the sake of its own last scene.
So writes Gilbert Adair in Flickers, his one-film-a-year celebration of a hundred years of cinema. Put aside for the moment the fact that Adair, in his essay on Sansho the Bailiff, conflates the all-important ending with that of Ugetsu Monogatari, and give Adair his due: he is absolutely right. In the remarkable series of masterpieces that Mizoguchi made through the fifties up to his relatively early death at 58, there are films that I personally respond to more than Sansho—Chikamatsu Monogatari, for example, or Gion Festival Music. But in Sansho the Bailiff, with the simple, pure line of its story, it’s almost as if Mizoguchi distilled in one masterpiece all the exquisite beauty and depth of feeling that make his work so great.
The story of Sansho the Bailiff is a re-telling of an old legend set in the eleventh century, although Yoshikata Yoda’s screenplay is based on an early twentieth-century version, a short story by Ôgai Mori (Criterion has included Mori’s story as well as an oral version in the booklet that accompanies the DVD). It centres on the family of Taira Masauji, a governor who falls from favour and is sent into an exile. After some years, his wife Tamaki, son Zushio, and daughter Anju set off to join him but they are tricked and sold off—Tamaki as a prostitute on the island of Sado, the two children as slaves on the estate run with utter cruelty by Sansho the Bailiff.
When you read through Mori’s story, the differences between his version and Mizoguchi’s are very apparent, in both details and four main areas. First, Mori’s story focuses on Zushio and Anju as children, whereas for Mizoguchi their childhood is there to establish the background to their experiences as adults—moreover, as Yoda amusingly notes in his memoirs of working with Mizoguchi (available in the West in a French translation published by Cahiers du Cinéma), when Mizoguchi first saw a more faithful screenplay adaptation of Mori’s story he reacted with “What! A kids’ story? I want the same story, but without the children!”
Also, Mori’s story never really conveys the vicious cruelty and inhumanity that is the lot of the slaves in Mizoguchi’s film. Mori even contrives a happy ending, which leaves everyone, even Sansho after the abolition of slavery on his estate, confirmed in their original positions within society—as far from Mizoguchi’s ending as it is possible to be. But the biggest change that Sansho the Bailiff brings to the story is the modern and a-historical humanist message that with great power underpins the whole film.
From the start, the film declares its intention to examine what truly defines being human, living in a civilisation. This is a story, the opening titles tell us, from a time “when mankind had not awakened as human beings.” The crime of Zushio and Anju’s father, the reason for his exile and the breaking-up of the family, is that he acts in the film’s terms as a “human being”, he treats his social inferiors – the peasants over whom he rules as governor – as individuals whose lives are of equal value to those of his peers. The explicit lesson of life that he leaves for Zushio is this:
Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.
The physical symbol of this humanitarian message is the amulet of Kwannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, that Zushio’s father gives him as a farewell gift, and the progress of the amulet through the film traces the enactment of the father’s humanitarianism through the characters of the story. So, the amulet is shown and the message passed to Taro, Sansho’s son (a parallel figure with Zushio), which leads Taro to a decisive rejection of his father and his father’s world.
On the other hand, when the adult Zushio casts aside the amulet, it’s a sign of his own degradation and of how he has renounced the principles of his father; principles whose spirit is now carried by Anju, symbolised by her picking up of the amulet. Later, after Zushio’s escape from Sansho’s estate, it is the discovery of the amulet which leads to the restoration of his social status and his setting off to put his father’s principles into action. And at the end of the film, the amulet becomes the crucial object that enables the now blind Tamaki to recognise her son.
The attempts by the characters in the film – the father, Zushio, Anju, Taro – to act humanely is a struggle against a cruel world. Again and again, the cold, stark, savage nature of the world—that is, of human society—is commented on. “It’s a cold world,” says Tamaki, telling the priestess (who will soon betray her) of how even her own family would offer her no help. “What a horrible world,” declares Taro, at the thought of a world where children as young as Zushio and Anju can be sold. “Why does the rest of the world turn its back on us?” asks Anju. And the words of Tamaki’s song, that acts as a link across time and space between mother and children, are repeated again and again through the film: “Isn’t life a torture?” The emblem of the cruelty of that life is the two acts of savage violence that parallel the worlds of children and mother: on Sansho’s estate, the branding of an escaped slave; on Sado, the cutting of Tamaki’s tendon that the brothel-owner orders after her attempt to escape.
This, then, is the tension that underpins Sansho the Bailiff, between selfless humanitarian action on behalf of others and the cruel and heartless structures of human society. There’s a perfect image of this when Zushio tries to plead his case to the Chief Advisor in Kyoto. Mizoguchi dramatically contrasts the slow steady ceremonial advance of the Chief Advisor along the veranda of the building compared with Zushio’s desperate, impassioned, shrieking pleas from the ground below as he scurries to keep up with. The Chief Advisor remains unmoved, giving no sign under his cold, formal exterior that he has even heard.
This civilisation’s culture is a mask for the exploitation and violence which sustains it. The cruel and brutal Sansho is approved of by his superiors for the material wealth he creates for them. Objects are valued, not individuals—and especially not those slaves whose labour produces the objects. The minister’s messenger explicitly praises Sansho for his economic efficiency, and, tellingly, he absorbs himself in the box of valuable gifts Sansho has presented him with, greedily turning away from the traditional dance performance being staged for him. Culture is a mere alibi for a materialist valuation of the world.
Some writers describe Sansho as “corrupt,” but this hardly seems the case. Rather, he is efficient and utilitarian, establishing a reign of violence and fear over his slaves for the economic benefits that brings him. Human value is reduced to the level of economic usefulness. That’s why he insists, against his son Taro’s protests, that the young Zushio and Anju immediately be sent to work as adults, and why the aged Namiji, too old to work, is abandoned to die outside the estate.
But, for the film, the greatest horror of this world is the way the adult Zushio gives in, resigns himself to and accepts its values. When the two children first arrive, they witness how Sansho’s son Taro refuses to brand a runaway slave. Yet in adulthood it is Zushio himself who wields the branding iron, willingly enforcing Sansho’s rule on his fellow slaves. It takes an almost mystical intervention through his sister Anju for Zushio to be brought to his senses, to be reminded of his father’s principles, and to regain a sense of his own humanity.
It’s characteristic of the film’s exquisite pictorial qualities that Mizoguchi stages this reminder to Zushio of his true, younger self visually, in a mirror-image of a scene from Zushio’s childhood at the start of the film. Here, the overhead shot of Zushio coming to the aid of Anju as she tries to pull branches off a tree, then of both of them falling to the ground together is a direct replica of the scene at the start of the film when mother and children stopped on their journey to their father to rest for the night—the only change is what side of the tree they fall. This visual claim on Zushio is then reinforced aurally through Anju’s “hearing” of their mother’s call, via the song that was brought to them from Sado Island by a newly-purchased slave. The visual and the aural then come together to force through Zushio’s moral transformation.
Zushio’s campaign to liberate Sansho’s slaves is as single-minded as the sharp, clean lines of Sansho the Bailiff’s straightforward plotline. As soon as his goal is achieved, he immediately renounces his position of power and authority. Mizoguchi is addressing here the limitations on and of the humane actions of a single individual. In a sense, Zushio’s withdrawal from public into private life is not so different from Sansho’s son Taro. Taro’s revulsion before his father’s violence towards and exploitation of his fellow creatures never leads to any concrete attempts to change or reform the nature of the society he lives in. Instead, he renounces the world and withdraws into a secluded religious life—“If you want to live honestly with your conscience,” he tells Zushio, “keep close to the Buddha.”
Zushio does keep close to the Buddha, but his closeness is relayed through the amulet of Kwannon, and, in sharp distinction to Taro, he is driven to action in the wider world. The long-term effects of that action may even be called into question – the slaves respond to their new liberation with an orgy of anarchic destruction – but for Mizoguchi the key point is that Zushio does something, that he tries to change a small part of his world for the better in acting, in however limited a way, as a humane being.
The liberation of the slaves is the climax to the public narrative of Sansho the Bailiff’s story, but the film’s emotional climax, the point of cathartic release to which the whole film has been leading, is the final sequence, the reunion between mother and son. In its exquisite balance of pictorial beauty and emotion (a characteristic of the whole film) it also serves as a summation of Mizoguchi’s art. Zushio is now dressed in the simplest of clothes marking his renunciation of public office, making him indistinguishable from the peasant gathering seaweed on the seashore. The camera tracks Zushio as he treads across the sand, then cranes up to hold on a collection of dilapidated shacks, behind which Zushio disappears.
This then prepares us for the emotional force of the cut to a rear view of the now-blind Tamaki sitting among the drying millet, which in itself leads in to the emotionally-charged scene, with its mixture of sorrow and joy, of the reunion of mother and son. There’s a sublime delicacy to the way Mizoguchi then withdraws from the scene, in the film’s final shot which reverses that crane over the beach scene, returning to the peasant collecting the seaweed off the sand. For Dudley Andrews, this scene represents the indifference of the world to the private tragedy of Zushio and Tamaki, but I don’t think this is in fact the effect here. Yes, the peasant is ignorant of the drama unfolding a few metres away from him, but just as important here is the beauty of this final image, the way the sun suddenly glistens on the sea as the camera pans across the cove. Beauty and Sadness is the title of one of Kawabata’s novels (or With Beauty and Sorrow, as the English title of Shinoda’s film adaptation has it), and it’s a title that suits Sansho the Bailiff, too, with its depiction of the vilest of human exploitation and the noblest of humanitarian impulses in a film that is simply one of the most beautiful that Cinema has to offer.