Monday, May 23, 2016

Kenji Mizoguchi | 山椒大夫 Sanshō Dayū (Sansho the Bailiff)

to save the soul
by Douglas Messerli

Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda (writers, based on a story by Mori Ōgai), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) 山椒大夫 Sanshō Dayū (Sansho the Bailiff) / 1954

Critic Anthony Lane’s comments about Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 film, Sansho the Bailiff pretty much sum up my own feelings after watching this film the other day:

                      I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, 
                      emerging from the cinema a broken man but 
                      calm in my conviction that I had never seen any-
                      thing better; I have not dared watch it again, 
                      reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the 
                      human heart was not designed to weather such 
                     an ordeal.


        Although Mizoguchi characterizes the story as a folktale, which has led some critics to describe it as a simple story, I’d argue it is deeply complex, not just in its meanings, but in its narrative pattern, and a great deal is expressed in what does not get told or said. What we can say that is simple about this work is its morality: on the one side we have the kind and merciful men such as the governor father, who at the beginning of this historical drama is exiled for refusing to punish the rebelling peasants under his rule; and on the other we have the cruel, greedy Sansho who uses hundreds of slaves to attain his notoriety and wealth. In between are most of the other figures, although it is clear that the governor’s wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), his daughter Anju (Kyōko Kagawa), and Sansho’s son, Tarō (Akitake Kōno) all attempt to follow the higher principles of life; but even the governor’s loving son, Zushiō (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) wavers in his commitment to the good, when, as a slave overseer, he brands a fellow slave for having attempted to escape.
       The story actually begins as a voyage by Tamaki, Zushiō, and Anju years after their husband and father’s exile, as they attempt join him. In a region where they are told bandits and slavers abound they can find no inn for the night, and are forced to camp out-of-doors. There they encounter a seemingly kind priestess who invites them into her home; but the next day, she insists that they should continue their trip by boat in order to protect them; when they meet their carriers, however, we quickly realize that they have been betrayed, as the mother is separated from her two children, she to be sold into prostitution, the children sold to Sansho as slave labor.
      Immediately the children are set to hard work, with only the kindness of other slaves and the caring Tarō to protect them. Tarō, to whom the children finally confess their identities, cautions them they must work hard and bear the suffering so that they might later find a way to escape. Meanwhile, disgusted with his own father’s treatment of his slaves, Tarō, himself, leaves, hoping in Kyoto to find someone to hear his complaints.
      The children grow up, behaving, as I mention above, in opposing ways, Anju retaining the lessons of her father, while Zushiō submits—in a manner not so dissimilar to the Jewish capos and workers in the Nazi camps in World War II—to the orders of his other superiors.
       One day, when a new girl appears, Anju hears her singing a sad song that employs both her and Zushiō’s names; it is immediately clear that the lament has  been sung by her own mother, who must, accordingly, still be alive and desperately seeking her children. She encourages her brother to escape the camp with her, but he dismisses her by questioning how they might survive without papers and money.

      Soon after, however, the two are sent out to accompany the body of a dying worker—a woman who had befriended Anju—whom they are ordered to leave in the woods to die. Anju begs the guard to let them gather wood and rushes so that they might, at least, build a small roof over her to protect her from frost. As the two work in gathering these materials, Zushiō recalls the time years earlier when they had done the same thing for their stay in the woods overnight with their mother. Suddenly he becomes determined to escape; but Anju insists that he go alone, taking the elderly woman with him, instead of her; she will provide a temporary ruse for his absence. 
      With regret, Zushiō leaves for a nearby Imperial temple, while Anju, returning back to camp reveals that her brother has escaped. As Sansho’s guards rush in chase of the escapee, Anju once again leaves the camp to walk into a nearby lake and drown herself so that, if tortured, she cannot reveal her brother’s destination.

       At the temple, Zushiō discovers that the head priest is none other than Tarō. Sansho’s son. The monks give the elderly women medicine and hide the two as Shanso’s soldiers search to discover where they might have gone. Determined to travel on to Kyoto to plea to the Chief Advisor about the condition of the slaves, Zushiō begs Tarō to care for the woman; Tarō, in turn, gives him papers to identity Zushiō to the Advisor.       Yet Zushiō is denied entrance to the Advisor’s palace, and even after slipping in undercover and confronting the administrator, is taken away and imprisoned. Only after guards discover a statuette of the god of mercy, given to him by his father, on Zushiō’s body, does the Advisor agree to meet with him, telling him that his father has died, while awarding him the governorship of Tango, the same province where Sansho lives.
       When Zushiō suggests he will outlaw slavery, however, he is reprimanded by the Advisor, and told that he has no role over personal property, only public lands.
       As Zushiō arrives in Tango, nonetheless, he announces a ban of slavery on all lands, public and private, insisting, over his assistant’s protests, that his soldiers close down Sansho’s estate.

       They are met with justified resistance—given the laws—but are defeated by Zushiō’s men. Zushiō, himself, apologizes to the old man who he had formerly punished. But he also discovers the fact that his sister has killed herself to protect him. As Zushiō and his men leave, the freed slaves burn down Sansho’s house.        
       Zushiō, having accomplished his goal, resigns his position, traveling to Sado, the island to where his mother has been taken to become a courtesan. There he finds another woman who has taken on his mother’s name, but can find no woman in the house of his mother’s age. Told that she had probably been killed in a local tsunami, he walks to the beach where she must have died.
       There he finds an old, blind woman singing the same song his sister had heard. Recognizing her as his mother, he attempts to tell her who he is, but she rejects him as a liar until he presents her with the same statuette of mercy that has saved him in the past. Zushiō reports of the deaths of both his father and Anju, as the two sadly fall into one another’s arms—too late, obviously, to redeem either of their lives.
        That is the story. But I have left everything out. Mizoguchi’s film is so beautifully, yet simply, shot that telling this tale is not as important as how it is visually represented. Along with Fumio Hayasaka’s memorable musical score, the beautiful early scenes, as the family attempt their long walk to reunite with their father, the terrible vision of the split of their family into two boats, the scenes of loving intimacy between Anju and her slave friend, Anju’s suicide by downing, the scenes which show the yearning Tamaki, and hundreds of other frames of this film literarily overwhelm the viewer with their beauty. There are very few black-and-white films that one might describe as so ravishingly beautiful: Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, and Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ spring to mind. Yet Mizoguchi’s film, with its simple moral premise that there are those who abuse their fellow beings and a very few who manifest their love for the world, has never been better revealed. Those who care, obviously, lose nearly everything but their souls—souls which seem glowingly alive in Mizoguchi’s art.

Los Angeles, May 23, 2016

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