“Without mercy, man is like a beast… even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.“
This sentence, uttered by the film’s magnanimous patriarch and moral cornerstone, lingers over the protagonists of Sansho the Bailiff forming a tremendous weight upon their shoulders. It’s an affliction because the film devotes much of its length to proving only the first half of the statement, consequently highlighting just how difficult it is to practice the second part. Mizoguchi’s world-view has probably never been this bleak, yet the film is nonetheless one of the most compassionate works that I’ve ever seen. The director utilises his strengths – craftsmanship and storytelling – and adds in a heavy dose of lyrical humanism that is overwhelming in its cumulative power. Gone are the writing flaws that affected Ugetsu, and instead we’re left with a tightly-focused and beautifully-filmed piece of art that comfortably sits alongside the likes of Persona, Stalker et al. as one of the greatest films ever made (at least as far as I’m concerned.)
Sam Juliano spoke:
1st/04/2010 to 1:59 pm
More than any other Mizoguchi film, SANSHU DAYU is entitled to be described as “Shakespearean.” it’s themes are universal, it’s characters embrace all walks of life and morality. The film’s central theme may well be how civilization and morality can emerge out of barbarism. Hence this noble story of redemption, and of good arising from evil, is tuned into cinematic art, abetted by the highest level of black and white cinematography, acting and writing. The mother is played by the legendary Kinuyo Tanaka, one of the greatest of Japanese actresses. As Mizoguchi was a passionate advocate of feminism, evidenced in many of his films, he surely had Tanaka evoke the strongest feminine vulnerability through literally every pore. The adult Zushio is played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi and his sister Anju by Kyoko Kagawa, who appeared in the other Japanese masterpiece of the same period, Ozu’s TOKYO STORY.
Sansho opens with a caption that describes it’s literary forebearer as: “one of the world’s great folk tales.” Right from the outset then, we’re given an example of the film’s intent on mythologizing the past. This is applicable to both Mizoguchi as well as his content. The scenes that immediately follow this prologue serve as demonstrations of the characters’ needs to commemorate: Zushio seeking reassurances about his father’s nobility; Tamaki’s memories of Masauji shown in flashback sequences that emphasise the past’s influence on the present; the brief close-up of the Kwannon heirloom; and finally, Tamaki asking Zushio whether he remembers his father’s face and his teachings (reinforcing his values.) Later in the film, Tamaki is also memorialized by her children, notably through the use of song. These compulsive requirements do much to emphasise the timeless qualities of the story – something that is augmented by the film’s focus on travelling: from the passing of the fable as outlined in the prologue; to the initial trip made by mother and children; the separate paths that they take into the worlds of prostitution and slavery; Zushio’s escape; Anju’s spiritual ascendence; even Zushio’s journey up (and down) the social hierarchy. With Masauji’s aforementioned words judging the characters at every step of their respective travels, it’s clear that Sansho has a (probably self-referential) concern with the act of storytelling and the effects that this has upon an audience.