Sansho2Has a director ever had more extraordinary back-to-back years than Kenji Mizoguchi in 1953 and 1954? With Ugetsu and then Sanshô the Bailiff, Mizoguchi produced two of the decade’s greatest masterpieces, and two of the finest films to ever come out of Japan…and the world. Picking between the two is, for me, like apples and oranges, and entirely unnecessary; it mostly depends on which I’ve seen most recently. Having just finished up a third viewing of Sanshõ, the time seemed right for a long overdue review of one of my favorite movies from a director who, when at his best, is as masterful as any filmmaker, alive or dead. Sanshõ the Bailiff focuses on dual primary themes: a thorough condemning of medieval Japan’s slave trade, and the heartrending story of Zushiõ (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), and Anju (Kyõko Kagawa), which takes the center stage for much of the picture. Ironically, Mizoguchi was forced by his production studio to make this the film’s focal point—he passionately wanted Sanshõ (Eitarõ Shindõ), the brutal administer of the slave camp where Zushiõ and Anju are sold, to be at the story’s forefront. It’s a testament to Mizoguchi’s greatness that he was able to smoothly, if unhappily, adjust to his studio’s demands and put forth such a brilliant work.

Sansho1Sanshõ the Bailiff begins with Zushiõ and Anju’s father, Masauji (Masao Shimizu)—the Governor of Tango—being banished from his post by his superior officer, a feudal warlord who has no patience for Masauji’s humanistic tendencies. This initial scene does much to shape Sanshõ the Bailiff‘s trajectory. Firstly, it establishes the “noble father as a role model” angle that permeates throughout the movie: before being roughly escorted away by armed guards, Masauji tells his children that they’ll be nothing without compassion and selflessness. This worldview is heavily steeped in Japanese culture, and it emerges again and again throughout the film. Secondly, it sets in motion Zushiô and Anju’s tragic arc—with Masauji gone, their mother Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) is forced to take the children to live with Masauji’s brother. After a few years of toiling in obscurity, they’re tricked by a devious priestess and sold into slavery: Tamaki is sent to Sado, and Zushiô & Anju to Sanshô’s estate. Mizoguchi films the excruciating separation on the beach with crystal compositions, and it’s not a coincidence that Sanshô the Bailiff‘s most emotional moments occur by the water: at a time when canoes were among the most advanced forms of transportation available, “departures” from lakes and oceans symbolize a goodbye of undetermined lengths, and arrivals to the shores can be seen as miracles.

Zushiô and Anju are immediately put to work despite their extreme youth (when the eight-year old Anju is roughly thrust into the fields on her first day, a kindly middle-aged female slave memorably grumbles, ” she should be playing with dolls.”) The extent of Sanshô’s cruelty quickly becomes apparent: he brands a slave’s forehead with a red-hot poker for trying to run away, and later has a woman’s Achilles tendon slashed for the same reason. He relishes his position of power over the disadvantaged, and doesn’t have a single compassionate bone in his body. Fortunately for Zushiô and Anju, Sanshô’s son  Taro (Akitake Kôno) is much gentler than his father, and grows fond of the children. He believes their story that they come from nobility, but advises them to bide their time until they’re old enough to have a chance at successfully escaping. By this point, Mizoguchi has begun to draw the distinction between good and evil, while making it clear that the lines can still blur. We see this as the children age: Zushiô comes close to giving in to the culture he’s been thrust into when he brands a potential escapee at Sanshô’s instructions. But when Anj, whose soul has not been at all corrupted, hears a recent arrival singing a song about her and her brother, one picked up in Sado, she knows her mother is alive, and it fills her and Zushió with newfound purpose. They pick their spots, and once Zushiô makes it out, with plenty of help, Sanshô the Bailiff shifts gears: the tragedy takes a different direction, and the film focuses on Zushiô being reborn, first by claiming his father’s old job as Governor of Tango, and then sacrificing that power by overstepping it, imposing his will on the private sector, and, with support for his noble aims, freeing all of Sanshô’s slaves. In this sense, Sanshô the Bailiff can also be viewed through the prism of Government’s reach, and what it should and should not be allowed to interfere with. Obviously, the history of our country’s slave trade draws a sharp parallel.

One of Sanshô the Bailiff‘s strongest traits is the fluidity of narrative, and the accompanying lyrical cinematography. Every sequence develops gracefully, every character evolves and ends true to their ideals that Mizoguchi so poetically develops early on. Zushiô ultimately lives by his father’s teachings, and feels deeply stained by his role in the branding. Sanshô, the embodiment of cruelty until the end, never repents or recognizes the errors of his ways: the tight compositions in his lair emphasize his closed-minded mentality. And Tamaki, alone in Sado for so many years, never loses hope that her children will have managed to persevere: our final encounter with her near the film’s conclusion is so beautiful and so deserved, it could make a rock weep. There’s nary a flaw in the entirety of Sanshô the Bailiff: top-notch performances, subtle sound editing, and expert pacing are present for its entirety. A richly layered masterpiece, Sanshô the Bailiff deserves a spot near the highest pantheon of world cinema.