Sunday, 16 August 2015

I've Just Seen: Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu) (1954)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

The title of this film is slightly misleading. I was expecting a story about the exploits of a bailiff named Sansho; I had no other expectations, having decided to not look up what it was about before I watched it. I suppose, then, that it is my fault then for assuming this. That is not to say that the character Sansho isn't important to the story: he is vital. But it is like naming the Disney film Aladdin, 'Jafar.'

This was my first Mizoguchi film. I knew beforehand that he often films stories about women, and obviously his reputation as one of Japan's greatest filmmakers; he is mentioned in the same breath as Kurosawa and Ozu. I really enjoyed this film, though that may not be the right word for it. The story of Sansho the Bailiff is full of family separation and sacrifice. One by one the family is pulled apart by others' selfishness and cruelty, being exhiled, sold into prostitution and slavery. Perhaps I should say I was very moved by this film.

There is a lovely use of music in Sansho: Tamaki, the mother living on a different island to her children Zushio and Anju, sings a song that speaks of her longing for her children. Anju hears it, and the effect is to push the story towards the family's reuniting.

The central idea of the film is mercy: Zushio and Anju are told by their father to remember that 'Without mercy, man is not a human being.' Mizoguchi, who clearly believes this himself, shows that keeping this truth is difficult yet vital, having repercussions greater than you can imagine.

The film's final scene is incredibly touching. You care about the members of the family, who all care about each other. Though I didn't cry, I was definitely moved. I shall certainly re-watch this at some point; largely to pay greater attention to Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography.  


  1. This is probably Mizoguchi's best film, but it's not one that I expect I will ever watch again just because of the wretchedness that happens in it.

    1. I can understand that: there is much wretchedness and suffering. I had a similar reaction to Amores Perros; I can't emotionally put myself through the film again, though I thought it was very good.

  2. The "sacrifice" elements are perhaps a bit overdone here, but otherwise I agree this is a good movie. I was on holiday on an Italian wine farm when I watched this so it was a bit difficult to dive into it, but it was beautifully made and you can only admire the cinematography.

    1. I remember wondering if the wall-to-wall suffering and sacrifice would be a bit much, but I went with it. The quietness and beauty of the cinematography, I think, cut through any suggestion of melodrama.