A scene from SANSHO THE BAILIFF, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji for Kadokawa Herald Pictures.

Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Mizoguchi Kenji)

Sansho the Bailiff is one of cinema’s most depressing pieces. I don’t think, after about twenty minutes into the film, there’s a single positive moment. Good things happen–occasionally–but they only lead to bad things (or the revelation of bad things).

The film opens with an epigraph, establishing the time period and some basics. It also implies Sansho is a folk tale and it does follow many of the traditions of (Western) fairy tale. The family of a royal–I’m paraphrasing and summarizing and Westernizing to fit that fairy tale comparison–are forced into slavery, only to have the son escape, rise to the proper position and return to save his family. Thanks to Walt Disney, there’s always room for a little fact-free hopefulness and it helps with Sansho. There are long periods of time without anything positive going on where the fairy tale comparison can keep one’s spirits afloat.

There are other downbeat films, ones even more relentlessly so. Where Sansho is different is in the setting. It’s the most affecting film about slavery I’ve ever seen. But the lack of any positive forces at work–one character even talks about the cruelness of the world and can only offer a monk’s solitude as a suggestion for reprieve–makes the viewing experience singularly rending.

I didn’t know anything about Sansho going in–I thought it was a samurai movie, actually, and Sansho would be the main character (I wondered why he came so late in the opening titles)–which might have amplified the experience for me. Mizoguchi fills the film with beautiful shots, with Miyagawa Kazuo’s outdoor cinematography some of the most exquisite I’ve ever seen, but they’re usually in contrast to the story. Only at the beginning, as the characters walk through a field of tall flowers, does Mizoguchi really let any physical beauty influence the characters. The rest of the film, no one really has any time to appreciate it. In lesser hands, it’d be cynical, but Mizoguchi instead creates an invisible barrier. By the time–following a long introduction sequence at the slave manor–he returns to beautiful scenery, he’s got the viewer so despondent, it’s going to take a lot more than some pretty trees to get him or her vivified.

Technically speaking, the film’s perfect. Mizoguchi fills his frame–and Miyagawa maintains such precise focus–the film feels like it has to be widescreen (it isn’t). The exterior shots don’t just cause this sensation, it’s also the interiors. The way characters talk to each other, move around each other, it’s as though they’re subject to Mizoguchi’s barriers as well. All of them–good and bad–are blissfully ignorant in some way or another. Even the titular Sansho, as villainous as he is, is rendered somewhat absurd as he cows to (much younger) superior.

The acting is all excellent, with Kagawa Kyôko the standout. Hanayagi Yoshiaki, the eventual lead (the son), has some problems starting out, but he eventually comes around–or it’s just the natural progression of the character.

It’s an awkward film to recommend–I imagine seeing it in a theater, with its bleakness julienning the communal film-going experience is a rare experience–but it really is a singular motion picture. I’ve just been writing about it for five hundred or so words and I can’t quite believe I was able to verbalize any part of my response to the film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mizoguchi Kenji; screenplay by Yahiro Fuji and Yoda Yoshikata, based on the story by Mori Ogai; director of photography, Miyagawa Kazuo; edited by Miyata Mitsuzô; music by Hayasaka Fumio, Mochizuki Tamekichi and Odera Kanahichi; production designers, Ito Kisaku and Nakajima Shozaburo; produced by Nagata Masaichi; released by Kadokawa Herald Pictures.

Starring Tanaka Kinuyo (Tamaki), Hanayagi Yoshiaki (Zushiô), Kagawa Kyôko (Anju), Shindô Eitarô (Sanshô), Kôno Akitake (Taro), Shimizu Masao (Masauji Taira), Mitsuda Ken (Prime Minister Fujiwara), Okuni Kazukimi (Norimura), Kosono Yôko (Kohagi), Tachibana Noriko (Namiji), Sugai Ichirô (Minister of Justice), Omi Teruko (Nakagimi), Kato Masahiko (Young Zushiô) and Enami Keiko (Young Anju).

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