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
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.
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.
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