386 Sansho the Bailiff

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
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Michael Kerpan
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Re: Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

#176 Post by Michael Kerpan » Mon Sep 02, 2019 12:55 pm

I find the actor playing the grown-up hero totally ineffective -- and Tanaka (possibly my most respected Japanese actress) seems largely wasted here. I do like the early portion when the children are still children -- but that's only a small part of the film.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Mizoguchi in general (albeit less so than about Kurosawa). His work is harder to grasp overall because much of it has deep roots in a theatrical tradition that was already very old-fashioned by the 1920s (and very archaic by the 1950s).

domino -- what are (at least some of) the 11 films you liked much less?

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Re: Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

#177 Post by Roscoe » Tue Sep 03, 2019 10:23 am

I'm afraid I was utterly underwhelmed by the film when I saw the latest restoration a little while back. As I was by UGETSU, I'm also afraid. I've enjoyed Mizoguchi's contemporary films more, like OSAKA ELEGY and the remarkable STREET OF SHAME, which I found far superior to SANSHO.

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Re: Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

#178 Post by Michael Kerpan » Tue Sep 03, 2019 10:55 am

Appreciating Mizoguchi (even the more contemporary films, albeit to a lesser extent) requires a certain degree of aesthetic recalibration. There is sort of a mis-match (until one becomes acclimated) between high-pitched emotionality in content and often somewhat distanced (usually wonderful) cinematography.

There are few Mizoguchi films that do not contain wonderful segments at least -- and I think Sansho has a fair number of these. However, taken as a whole, Sansho has never quite worked for me. Interestingly, the author of the source story was a very extreme Germanophile (especially of German romanticism). I've always felt that the source's exotic romanticism outweighed the film's inherent Japaneseness. ;-)

An often overlooked more contemporary film by Mizoguchi is Uwasa no onna (no adequate English title) -- which I swear must be a (very loose) adaptation of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession. Unlike the constricted range Tanaka was required to display in Sansho, she got to really got to display all her best stuff (and it might be my favorite Tanaka performance in all thre surviving Mizoguchi films).

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Re: Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

#179 Post by Sloper » Wed Sep 11, 2019 6:33 pm

domino harvey wrote:
Mon Sep 02, 2019 12:19 pm
a stomach-turning realization of a cruel and uncaring world without being exploitative or cheap
This is a good summation of what I've always found so powerful about this film. After re-watching it the other day, I think the key thing is that the portrayal of human callousness and cruelty (epitomised by the title character) is unflinching and relentless, but also morally nuanced. You can't just hate Sansho and regard him as an inherently evil monster, because you see the potential for Zushio (and presumably anyone) to turn into him. The cruel people in this film tend to be sneering and casual about their acts of cruelty - Zushio himself looks utterly detached when he brands the old man - and you sense that they are products of a cruel environment.

That word 'potential' is so important in Sansho the Bailiff: the code handed down by the father is held up as one possible way of life, and one that occasionally triggers an 'awakening' of people's humanity. When Sansho's son, Taro, hears this simple code, he is amazed by the idea that one could live like that, and angry that his own world doesn't operate according to such rules. The film is shot through with this achingly sad idealism, this idea that we could all be kind to each other, and be happy as a result - but also a clear-eyed perception of the reality, which is that our potential for cruelty and suffering is the one that tends to be given free rein. Sansho the lifelong slaver, and the lifelong slave who tries to escape the compound, are the extreme illustrations of this fact of experience. And the world is like this, not because we get seduced by the devil, or because we enjoy others' suffering, or even because we love the pleasures of life and demand that others work to provide them for us (which could all be cited as legitimate reasons in a different kind of story), but simply because, as Taro says, 'people tend not to care about things that don't directly concern them', and it's all too easy to get into the habit of thinking that nothing directly concerns you, not even the screaming slave at your feet.

Mizoguchi is such a perfect fit for this material, because he is always standing back from the characters and the situation, taking in the context they're not aware of, and making that context appear - not just beautiful or magical or mystical - but full of its own meaning, its own activity. There's always a world operating around these characters, oblivious to their suffering, and this isn't always something to grieve over: sometimes it's just other people living their lives, or a forest glade, or a field of tall grass with the wind blowing through it.

That opening shot, of Zushio playing on the log and his mother warning him to be careful, is so incredibly idyllic and beautiful, and such a poetic way of encapsulating what the film is about. We see the glade before we notice the family moving through it, and at first they're not easy to distinguish as individuals. The world is beautiful, but it also doesn't care about you; it offers the potential for happiness, but also the potential for pain and injury; and ultimately, you won't always be within reach (or earshot!) of people who love you.

Because the film has this complex perspective on all the action, it not only avoids sentimentality and exploitation, it also avoids coming across as naive. This is why I've never had a problem with Hanayagi's performance as Zushio. It's sort of like a performance from a Kurosawa film, but Mizoguchi can get away with allowing these histrionics because he's built the infrastructure around them so carefully. Look at the establishing shots before Zushio's appeal to the governor, when he's sneaking around the compound. There are lots of them, and they're very long and uneventful; and then suddenly there's a long burst of repetitive screaming, which fades away as Zushio is arrested; and then it starts up again when they take the Kwannon from him, then it fades again; and then Zushio is quietly made into a high-ranking official. Everything happens within a multi-layered context.

When Tamaki says, at the end, 'I don't know what you've done - I only know you followed your father's teachings, and that is why we are together now', what makes this so heartbreaking (as in, I cry every time) is that it's both true and not true. These two people are being rewarded for their kindness towards others; but they've also been relentlessly punished, to the point where it almost seems obscene for them (especially Tamaki) to be grateful to the universe for the very small, belated favour it has just done them. We feel the weight of that ambiguity, and of Tamaki's suffering, and of Anju's and the father's deaths, and of the slaves' plight, and of Zushio's 'cruel phase', and of his somewhat futile, limited achievement in freeing the slaves in Tango, and of his wrenching sobs as his mother talks to him now - and of all the other little things going on in this world, like the man gathering seaweed on the beach, and the huge rock Mizoguchi places in the centre of the final composition (leaving mother and son out of frame) - miraculously, we feel all of this at once in this ending, and that's why the reunion of mother and son is both a huge, cathartic relief and devastatingly sad. And why the ending and the film as a whole linger in the mind for such a long time afterwards - it's truly haunting, in the best possible way.

I first saw this film when it was shown on BBC4 in about 2001, and I still miss the subtitles on that edition (presumably the same as the BFI VHS). One line in Tamaki's song was rendered as 'What torture life is', whereas the Criterion translates it as 'Isn't life torture?'. The latter may be more accurate, and it's interesting to see Tamaki as trying to engage in a dialogue with her lost children, rather than in solitary ruminations on the agony of existence. But in English, 'Isn't life torture?' just sounds too colloquial and casual, like someone complaining about missing the bus. It slightly spoils the emotion of that key sequence (the best one in the film, I think) where Anju hears the new slave singing, and then we see Tamaki on Sado.

I'd also be really interested to know whether the BFI translation of the opening text, 'most of the population were treated as less than human', is more or less accurate than Criterion's (and from memory MoC's - been meaning to re-watch that one too) 'humanity had not yet awakened as human beings', which sounds like it's probably correct, but is also kind of awkward. (Or maybe I just want to be 18 again, discovering this amazing film for the first time and eagerly showing it to anyone who would watch it with me - no one ever seemed to get what the fuss was about...)

Also, as a final note, Fumio Hayasaka's score is one of the all-time greats. Everything I've just said I love about this film is enhanced to a very great extent by the music, which is utterly in tune with the emotional and philosophical tone of the story at every point. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Ravi Shankar's score for the Apu Trilogy - just thinking about any given motif brings all the emotions of that scene flooding back. To my knowledge, the Sansho score has never been released, but I'd love to be corrected on this point.

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Sloper
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Re: Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

#180 Post by Sloper » Fri Sep 13, 2019 5:46 am

Also it's not pious - that's the other word I was trying to remember. You would expect this to be a really preachy, finger-wagging film, but somehow it never is, despite being centrally about morality, right and wrong, etc.

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