Monday 16 November 2009

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Stars: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaka Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Eitaro Shindo, Akitake Kono, Masahiko Kato and Keiko Enami
Set during the late Heian period, a high spot in Japanese cultural history which ran from the 8th to 12th centuries and predated the rise of the samurai, the film's title character doesn't seem to stand for either of the words that 'Heian' commonly translates to: 'peace' and 'tranquility'. Sansho is the richest man around, a bailiff who runs one of the minister's estates, successful through exploitation of slaves and use of rigid discipline. It's here that two young slaves, Zushio and Anju, grow up, with their only real initial friend Taro, Sansho's son and second in command who does not believe in the same principles and who soon leaves to become a Buddhist monk. It's Taro that instils in them the courage to endure until they're old enough to leave and find their family. He also gives them false names, Matsu and Shinobu.

They're hardly peasant brats, secretly being the children of a governor in exile. This governor, Masauji Taira, is a compassionate and well loved man, who extols principles far more in tune with Taro than Sansho. When a general requests more taxes on rice to finance his war and more men to fight in it, he refuses because the locality has been suffering under a famine for thirteen years and the people need every man in the fields. So he's exiled to remote Tsukushi and he sends his wife Tamaki and children off to her mother's in Iwashiro. Unlike the people, who are incensed at this exile, his children are young enough to take it all in stride, at least until they're betrayed by a priestess on the road, split up and sold into slavery.

So Zushio and Anju end up with Sansho, ostensibly enduring and biding their time but really growing into adults within a very specific and unpleasant environment. As ten years pass with no knowledge of their mother beyond that she was sold into slavery on the island of Sado, they change as they grow, Zushio gradually putting aside all his father's carefully instructed words about mercy and growing into the sort of thug he thinks will impress his boss. Eventually hope arrives, along with a new slave from Sado to work with Shinobu. She sings a popular song about how life is torture without Zushio and Anju, one written by a courtesan called Nagakimi who of course has to be Tamaki under her own secret alias.

Given how attentive to composition and detail so much of classic Japanese culture is, from bonsai to ikebana to calligraphy, not to mention all the ritual associated with everything from the tea ceremony to the martial arts, it's hardly surprising that such composition would be so obvious in so much of classic Japanese film but it can be found across the board. It's there in what would be the equivalent of genre films, and of course it's there in something like Sansho the Bailiff, which is more like a historical drama. The cinematographer was Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot many Kurosawa classics like Rashomon and Yojimbo, a number of entries in the long running Zatoichi series and other major films like Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds.

By 1954, director Kenji Mizoguchi was a past master at composition, having been directing films over three decades and as a result even films that are too slow for their own good, like the two part The 47 Ronin, still look awesome. Here he was at the height of his powers, with the three most consistently high rated of his films arriving within a three year period: Life of Oharu in 1952, Ugetsu a year later and finally 1954's Sansho the Bailiff. Ugetsu is certainly one of the great classic films, from anywhere not just of the Japanese cinema, and while this one isn't its equal, it's a powerful film nonetheless and a visual treat. Everything down to the placement of footprints within the frame is carefully done, and it isn't just what's framed but what moves into and out of that frame.

The story is a touching one, tying as it does to the eternal struggle to be free. The way it's phrased is akin to a fairy tale, a cup full of sadness but overflowing with hope. Characters fall through circumstances into the depths of despair and depravation, only to rise again to a position of power and authority or to die through great sacrifice for others. Given such dramatic shifts in possibility, the emotions rise and fall like crashing waves and it's impossible not to be caught up with them. I found the sheer sweep of the thing a little too much, as some of it becomes overblown and unduly theatrical. Perhaps that's inherent in the material but I'm not entirely convinced of that.

There are others problems with the film too, not least the inevitable question of why Masauji Taira felt that his family couldn't follow him into exile, given that it wasn't exactly to be eke out a living in a hovel but merely to become the governor of somewhere more more remote and less important. Was he intending to track them down at some point and we're just spared the search, focusing instead on the children, or did he just exile them? I understand that we're talking here about a different culture and different morals, but he seems to be defined as someone out of his time, given that he drums into his son lessons like 'Men are created equal', 'Everyone is entitled to their happiness' and 'Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.' Surely such a man would care what happened to his family.

So while this is certainly a great film, I much prefer other Japanese films from this period and fortunately we have many to choose from as this is yet another prime example of how much amazing cinema was being made in Japan at the time. 1954 was the year of both The Seven Samurai and Gojira, surely two of the most influential films of all time, though in very different ways. 1953 didn't just have Ugetsu but also Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story and the highly underrated Gate of Hell, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa. Kurosawa's Ikiru was only a year earlier and it was only in 1950 that Japanese cinema had really broken outside its own borders when Rashomon became a global hit. This wasn't the golden age of Japanese film but the golden age of many of its directors such as Mizoguchi, who like his national cinema, was at his peak.

1 comment:

old pajamas said...

Thank you. To critique as wonderfully as you do is beyond me. I thank you again for reviewing films that I'm interested in........