“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.)
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.
More importantly, in narrative terms, this concern with legends (father, mother, ideals) consigns the film’s principal characters, Zushio and Anju, with a goal to work towards in the unforgiving world that they inhabit. And it really is a harsh life that Mizoguchi depicts here. Sansho’s labour camp makes for a dismal environment with its muddy desolation, forming a stark contrast to the picturesque reverence with which the outside world is often filmed in. Any attempts to escape slavery are met with torture that manifests itself as branding with a hot spear – leaving a mark that permanently erases/standardises one’s identity, a particularly relevant concept considering Zushio and Anju’s struggles with their own identities (note the name-changes.) Sansho himself is the complete antithesis to Masauji, explicitly stating as such: “Have no mercy on them!” he commands, after encountering the young siblings for the first time. Moreover, the camp continues the film’s theme of punishing those characters that dare to display any such mercy – the kindly Namiji is branded, whilst the sympathetic Taro feels compelled to leave.
Much like Ugetsu, Mizoguchi’s situation of the story in the Japanese past means that comparisons with recent history are inevitable. Taking this into account, the labour camp that Sansho so brutally administers reads as an allegorical condemnation of the concentration camps inherent to WW2 and Sansho’s administration is equated to militarism (on a quick side note: if one bears this in mind, the rebellion of the emancipated slaves takes on a thought-provoking new dimension.) Zushio’s loss of ideals then, can be equated to brainwashing as best exemplified by Anju’s pleas for him not to take the dying Namiji away, to which he responds: “It’s the bailiff’s orders.” The erosion of Zushio’s morality is crucial as it heightens the reality of his situation by placing him on a par with those that were engulfed by blind allegiance during wartime. Anju’s preservation of her own decency represents the alternative direction: enduring with dignity. Pervading through all these analogies is another line from the prologue: “The origin of this legend… goes back to the Heian period, when mankind had not yet opened their eyes to other men as human beings.” Mizoguchi’s figurative application of the legend to the decades that immediately preceded Sansho hints at this sentence’s own relevance: in 1945, had mankind really opened its eyes much more than in feudal Japan? The previously discussed mythologizing of the piece means that we can pose another question: has mankind even managed to open its eyes today?
In spite of the historical setting then, Sansho is a thoroughly modern (timeless) film that engages with socially relevant issues. It meditates on the difficult relationship between the humanitarianism at its heart and the political framework that’s necessary for implementing it: “Is it unlawful to love your people?” asks Zushio, “No, but one must obey his superior officer” is a minister’s response. Mizoguchi concludes that both are useless without the other. There’s also an examination of class structures. As Namiji is carried away by Zushio, an old friend prays for her reincarnation: “Be born to a rich family!” This statement oozes with irony when we note the fate of the “rich family” at Sansho’s core. Zushio’s later ascension to, and resignation from, a position of authority accentuates the precariousness of the social hierarchy – although the rest of the slaves’ inability to break out of the mould is arguably a testament to its rigidity? Perhaps what is underlined here is the hypocrisy of such hierarchies – only if one has the right name and knows the right people is mobility an option. Refusing to free the slaves allows the powered elites to protect their own positions. Regardless, it’s an interesting paradox and, as is always the case with Mizoguchi, it provides food for thought.
The thematic complexity of Sansho the Bailiff should, I hope, be clear by now. But much like Ugetsu, this is a film where style is inextricably linked to substance, and I wish to conclude by quickly focusing on three of the film’s most successful sequences: the forced separation of mother from children; Anju’s self-sacrifice; and the reconciliation between mother and son that closes the film. I’ll say now that I don’t just consider these the best sequences in the film, I esteem them as some of the finest moments in cinema full stop.
I mentioned Mizoguchi’s aptitude for scenes of horror when discussing Miyagi’s harrowing death scene in Ugetsu. The parallel with Sansho’s most horrific scene is difficult to ignore: same actress playing the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), same concept of mother being wrenched apart from offspring, the main divergence being that in this film the mother doesn’t die – she’s condemned to a life of constant suffering instead. Sansho’s scene is the more overtly stylised of the two, and it’s perhaps that which lends it the greater power, as the director flaunts the entire range of his cinematic weaponry. His setting is perfect, with ominously disfigured trees and a mist-ridden lake dominating the scenery-as-filmed by Kazuo Miyagawa. The sound design is a marvel, with sharp-pitched flutes screeching over the soundtrack as the scene itself crescendos with the intensity provided by the screaming children calling for their mother, and Tamaki and her servant Ubatake’s desperate protests to go back to shore. Framing? As good as it ever was, the pinnacle being when Mizoguchi exploits two deep-focus shots to show us: first – Tamaki fighting in the foreground and the children desperately attempting to escape in the background; and then – the same shot, but a few seconds later and in reverse, revealing the rapidly-growing distance between the boat and the shore. These shots are profound in the dual urgency that they provide. It’s perhaps Mitsuzo Miyata’s editing that deserve particular merit here, though. Mizoguchi is known for the serenity in his style, characterized by the long-take, and up until this sequence, there’s nothing to dispel that myth. Here, however, the director chooses to take his audience by surprise and Miyata’s editing allows him to probably come as close as he ever did to flirting with the concept of montage. It’s a breathtakingly beneficial u-turn in style, The velocity of the cutting rate, and the variety of the shot-making, means that the sequence is comparable to a swift shot to the body – we can’t comprehend what’s hit us until after the event (if that.) Finally, there’s a helping of vicious irony thanks to the gratitude that the family express to the ‘priestess’ before they’re about to depart. Even later, in the midst of the sequence’s terror, the good-natured Ubatake naively asks about the slave-traders rowing her away: “Priestess, are you sure they are reliable?” That the sequence should conclude with a pictorial framing of her death makes this line even more tragic. As a whole, these two-and-a-half minutes terrifyingly, but concisely, expose the absolute worst facets of humanity. Already, so soon after the flashbacks that taught us to be merciful, Mizoguchi is showing us the grimmest of realities – the polar opposite of what we’ve witnessed before, and a sign of things to come.
Upon a second viewing, Sansho’s horror sequence is permeated with greater sadness as we realise that it will be the last meeting of Tamaki and her daughter Anju. Of all the characters in the film, it is Anju who best exemplifies her father’s morals and values. It’s important to register the fact that she’s a weaver at the labour camp for this plays into her significance within the narrative. Aside from weaving basic materials together, she also unifies (what’s left of) her family at the cost of her own life. By doing so, one could argue that she’s even weaving the contents of the film, but I’ll stop that mode of thought before I get carried away. It’s easy to forget that Anju’s self-sacrifice allows not simply for Zushio’s escape, but also for the peaceful death of Namiji thanks to her request. The loss of the film’s sole embodiment of compassion (at this point) is a heartbreaking one, all the more so because of the respect with which Mizoguchi films her death scene. Again, a mist-ridden lake is at the fore, this time with less menacing trees framing Anju at the centre. In the distance, her mother’s sorrowful refrain can be heard (“Isn’t life torture?”), as Anju slowly enters the water. We then cut to her old friend, again exquisitely framed in the centre of our screens (this time by the bars of the camp, a contrast with Anju’s natural transcendence), who collapses to her knees in prayer – paralleling Anju’s own submission to the lake, and death. Another cut back to the lake reveals perfectly concentric ripples, our lasting memory of her, before merging into a shot of a Buddha in the temple where Zushio finds safety.
This is a sequence that’s emblematic of Sansho’s curious religiosity. The film’s concept of mercy is rooted in Buddhism, as illustrated by the figure of the Kwannon. Anju embodies this in the real world, and Mizoguchi accordingly treats her death with simplistic veneration as opposed to the dramatics that he could easily cave in to. The fact that an explicit link is made between Anju’s death and a religious symbol that safeguards her brother is suggestive of her own ascendence into the realm of the spiritual – not to mention the fabric of mythology that the film is actively concerned with.
For years now, I’ve maintained that Chaplin’s conclusion to City Lights is unrivalled within cinema. Upon my first viewing of Sansho the Bailiff I bawled my eyes out, without really understanding why. I re-watched the ending to try and comprehend… and ended up bawling my eyes out again. I then gave the film itself another viewing and still the tear-ducts were in action. Finally, before writing this I viewed that ending for a fourth time and cried again – although this time I managed to limit myself to only two or three tears and a controlled amount of sobbing. Anyway, all this leaves me with the possibility of two evaluations: a) that I’m simply a shameless cry-baby and that I need a shot of testosterone, pronto; or b) that Sansho’s ending is the most perfect finale in all cinema, trumping even Chaplin’s masterstroke. I’m guessing that both these statements are correct?!
Mizoguchi’s conclusion allows for the cathartic release that we, as the audience, have been waiting two hours for. The origins of its pathos are inexplicable with mere words, but I’ll nevertheless attempt to make some sense of it. First of all, it marks the long-anticipated reunion between Tamaki and Zushio. Mizoguchi’s success at conveying the arduousness that has allowed for this reconciliation makes it all the more poignant, as if the sight of a child reunited with his long-lost mother wasn’t enough. Instead of restoring them to their former glory, Mizoguchi refuses to romanticise and presents us a family in its most pitiful state. The heavy toll that a burdensome life has taken on Tamaki is especially heartbreaking because it manifests itself visually through her appearance. During Zushio’s search we’re led first to expect that she’s a prostitute, then to expect that she’s dead. What we find is more degrading than we could have imagined: a blind and decrepit woman worn down against the seaweed, barely managing to gasp out the song that her children so beautifully memorialised (compare this Tamaki to the woman who we encounter at the film’s beginning.) And then there’s the agonizing dialogue – upon announcing himself, Tamaki mutters: “You wretched being! You’ve come to try and fool me again!”, suggesting that she’s a woman who’s been taken advantage of many a time before as a result of the blindness that prevents her from seeing her own child. And then, the gut-wrenching obliviousness of her statement after learning that Anju has joined Masauji: “Your father? Is he doing well?” The scene concludes with the mother’s reaffirmation of the father’s teachings, before the overwhelming melodrama forces the camera’s gaze away from the reunited family, towards an indifferent image of the horizon as a man goes about his daily work.
This final endorsement of “mercy” is extraordinary when one contemplates exactly what “mercy” has accomplished for Zushio and Tamaki. As a result of this simple concept, they lost almost everything that they ever had, risked losing one another, and were forced to endure countless humiliations. To find the film advocating it in spite of such atrocity is humbling, and again allows us to make a parallel between the then and the now. That Mizoguchi should then summon up the nerve to pan away from this moment of astounding plaintiveness, in order to communicate how even this most significant of filmic events is but a tiny speck in the grand scheme of life… well, it takes guts. More than that, it requires the ability of a confident director absolutely in control of his art. Throughout Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi never once loses hold of his mastery – thus leaving us with an impeccable achievement, an evocative tribute to humanism that startles with its deceptively simple complexity.
And if you’ve managed to make it to the end of this shamelessly long-winded review then I thoroughly recommend that you congratulate yourself by viewing it. NOW!