Criterion // 1954 // 126 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // June 4th, 2007
Without mercy, man is like a beast.
After over 50 years, Sancho the Bailiff remains a galvanizing, thought-provoking experience. Few directors are willing to delve this deeply into human nature, where the revelations are challenging and uncomfortable. As a result, Sansho the Bailiff is an unsettling film to watch, but it's also timeless and sincere. In the '50s, this film captured attention around the world. Now, it is poised to do so again on DVD.
When a governor in late Heian Japan is exiled after fighting to protect his servants, he teaches his son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Clouds at Sunset) an important moral lesson: We must show mercy to other people, because all people are born with equal value. The boy and his family soon learn this isn't a sentiment not shared by most of the people around them. While traveling with her two children, the former governor's wife Tameki (Kinuyo Tanaka, Ugetsu) and two children are sold into slavery and separated. Tameki is forced into life as a courtesan, while Zushio and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa, The Bad Sleep Well) are made to work for the cruel Sansho the Bailiff (Eitaro Shindo, The Life of Oharu). When the children grow up, though, they have the opportunity to make choices of their own. They must learn to be merciful, though they have been shown no mercy.
One thing that always impresses me about Japanese films from this era is their uncanny ability to force contemporary viewers to slow down. Sansho the Bailiff moves patiently, forcing us to savor each sequence and contemplate each moment. As such, this film is an exploration as much as it is a dramatic viewing experience. Philosophy slides onto the screen, supporting and supported by a beautifully filmed historical backdrop. The movie offers no easy answers, no pat solutions, no easy way out. We are caught into this net, challenged deeply and personally.
Over two hours of running time, Sansho the Bailiff presents a number of challenging questions about life and human nature. The largest of these is a stunning, unpleasant moral quandary. In our world, we rarely gain power and influence by showing mercy, yet we admire when power is exercised in such a way that it affects the world in positively. When Zushio's father sacrifices his own post in order to do what he believed was right, it puts a cruel person in his place, and his peasants suffer even more in his exile.
After his escape, Zushio must make a series of similar decisions. Do father and son make the right decisions? I'm not sure. I'm certainly not comfortable with Zushio's period of cruelty under Sansho, when he tries to gain power by following unjust orders. I'm also not sure I would have the moral strength to show mercy If I suffers all the horrors Zushio does. There comes a point when mercy is no longer necessary, when people have given up their right to be treated kindly. After thinking about the film for several days, however, I still can't make up my mind about Zushio's final actions. While the setting of Sansho the Bailiff is distant, these are moral questions and issues that are just as relevant to our own cultural experiences. Despite the past hundred years of human advancements in science and psychology, it's still the old folk tales that most often affect and convict us on a moral level. After all, the form of government that Zushio's father tries to create wou! ldn't even been considered at this period of Japan's history, and the notion that all men are created equal would have been downright ridiculous. As an exploration of human rights, though, it remains highly effective.
It also makes for a pretty harrowing experience. Sansho the Bailiff is a bit like a Dickens novel without any humor, in the way the characters are forced to endlessly suffer, each turn of fate worse than the previous. Any moments of hope are quickly taken away again, replaced by even more horrible suffering. This philosophical horror is counteracted by what must be some of the most stunning cinematography I have ever seen. Anju's heartbreaking walk into a lake is a serene, breathtaking moment. If it weren't for these beautiful images, the suffering would probably be too much to bear. It's a surprisingly complex narrative as well, which is highlighted through these visuals.
As always, Criterion has done the best job possible with an important and classic film. The print is in surprisingly good shape, and there are no digital transfer errors to be found. It is soft at times, and there are some instances of dirt and print flaws, but it looks great for a film this old. The sound is also clear, as much as can be expected from a mono optical track of this age. It doesn't look quite as good as the new Criterion print of Seven Samurai (also released in 1954), but it looks much better than the original edition of that film.
The extras here are also extremely informative and useful. In the accompanying book, we get two translated short stories that inspired the film. There have been many versions of the Sansho legend. These two offer up a valuable insight into the nature of the original tale. We also get an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu. On the disc, there's a commentary by Japanese literature expert Jeffrey Angles. It is a highly informative track, and Angles clearly knows exactly what film buffs need to know about the context of a film. We are also treated to an interview with Kyoko Kagawa, who recalls the performance and the production. Another interview with assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka discusses the production in more detail. A third interview, with critic Tadao Sato, explores the themes and ideas represented in the film. While it isn't Criterion's most packed edition, each supplement adds something to the film, and supports it in an interesting way.
For fans of classic Japanese cinema, Sansho the Bailiff is an easy sell. Mizoguchi's films aren't the most famous from the period, but they represent an important and forward-thinking piece of Japanese film history. Sansho the Bailiff is a stunning work of art, a film that is pleasing to watch, interesting to think about, and leaves a viewer with challenging questions to answer. It wouldn't make a great introduction to the period, though, as there isn't much joy and hope to be found here. Still, I hope that this film gets a wide audience now that it has arrived on DVD.
For goodness sake, not guilty! This poor family has been through enough.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Jeffrey Angles Commentary Track
* Mark Le Fanu Essay
* Short Stories