Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954) concerns the cruel misfortune befalling the wife and children of a humane exiled provincial governor in ancient feudal Japan.
Water features strongly in the film. Mizo was never one to blatantly point up symbolism- he was an undemonstrative master like Renoir (who also deserves more appreciation nowadays) but here it’s involved with separation, beauty, purity, self-sacrifice, danger, aching longing, continuity, and at the end the eternal. The film certainly takes on a spiritual dimension, going to the wider universe beyond its tale, rather like Ugetsu’s final shot, but here at the perfect ending place, the sea. Water is counterpointed by fire in the film, male is balanced with female.
Few if any films can match the feeling for the beauty of nature, the mix of painterly eye, captivating silvery luminosity (even accompanied by a sense of sinister foreboding). The great cinematographer Miyagawa does a magnificent job. Mizo trusted his cinematographers and presumably his own sense of shot set-up, and what he wanted, without recourse to the viewfinder. He usually tended to give actors/actresses, designers and loyal screenwriter Yoda a very much harder time by all accounts. He was a stickler for historical authenticity. Mizo is renowned for serene fluid camera moves (masterly yet unobtrusive tracking and crane shots area trademark) but equally he knew when stillness was required. You see that in the central, heart-rending scene i’ll call Anju’s ripples. There’s more impact in her few ripples than a Hollywood tidal wave. Now which philosopher-critic was it who likened Mizo to a circle?
Sansho was the third consecutive Mizo film to win a major prize at Venice (the Silver Lion, like Ugetsu, whereas The Life of Oharu won the international prize) the same vintage year as Seven Samurai, La Strada and On the Waterfront- all beaten by a now forgotten version of Romeo + Juliet! Mizo was an extremely driven, competitive director. It was the success of Kurosawa’s Rashomon at Venice in 1951 that spurred him on to the heights of his string of late masterpieces. A pity international recognition came so late for him. but his epitaph, quite rightly, carries the words “the world’s greatest film director.”
I don’t think any film matches Sansho’s sense of the aching pain of family separation, of longing to be reunited. Mizo was often strong on issues of identity. The film makes striking use of sounds and song, carried and echoing across time and space. It’s a film full of compassion and humanity, which balances cruelty and suffering with love. It has clear links with Mizo’s own life; the main female characters, sister (Kyoko Kagawa) and mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) are paragons like Mizo’s own mother and sister. Mizo’s beloved mother died in his teens and there may be something of his own yearning in Zushio’s search. On the other hand, Mizo thought none too highly of his dad whereas in the film the father is also a paragon of virtue and wisdom to be guarded and passed on. But then, the tyrant Sansho himself may stand for the father Mizo despised as ripe (or rotten) for overthrow.
Mizo aimed very high, and often behaved tyrannically on set but although something of an aesthete his films are not mannered or pretentious. He aimed for balance between realism and heightened emotion, liked to give discreet dignity and distance to emotions without milking effects with simplistic manipulation. Melodrama in his hands can reach a sublime level of refinement. He avoids self-serving diversions that will harm the narrative. There is an underlying integrity to each scene and the film as a whole. He has his own distinct style without fitting so neatly the auteur model as say Ozu and Bresson. Perhaps that partly accounts for his relative neglect?
Women, and their suffering in an oppressive patriarchal world, are often central in his films. Here the main character may be Zushio and the title character also male, but my feelings go out more for sister Anju. I find the actress Kyoko Kagawa adorable.
The film’s politics support family unity and an idealised patriarchal wisdom- in competition with a brutal version of male power- but these are hardly unique to the Right. Instead Mizo supports the overthrow of tyranny and the revolt by the enslaved and again his sympathies are with the underdogs and disposessed, even if here the main characters are from more noble lineage than often the case in his films. He was consistently opposed to injustice, as recognised by the leftist Yoda, and in the film gives Sansho a tougher fate than does the novella by Ogai, though without resorting to vengeful sadism. Mizo was often authoritarian, petulant, self-centred and even abusive, and for all his concentration on the suffering of women he was very far from saint-like in his own dealings with them. Yet the humane qualities that shine through films like Sansho the Bailiff are clearly genuine. The power of the wonderful ending, often described as transcendental, may also be partly indebted to the Buddhism Mizo developed late in life. Sansho has been picked by one organisation among the top 100 spiritual films, but the Vatican missed it and Mizo out of their 45 recommendations i notice. He died of leukemia two years later in 1956, at the age of 58.
Some experience the film as too fraught with harrowing suffering, and consider it pessimistic. For me it finds a poignant balance between suffering and beauty, cruelty and love, imprisonment and freedom, pain and redemption, loss and comfort.
There’s a useful book on the film by Dudley Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh as part of the BFI classics series. A recent book on Mizoguchi by Mark le Fanu rates Sansho his very best, and praises it accordingly. I would strongly recommend David Bordwell’s book Figures Traced in Light, which covers in some detail Mizo’s filming methods and mastery of staging. Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema, by Tadao Sato is also well worth reading.
I consider Sansho the Bailiff the exquisite peak of cinema, and i love and cherish it.