Sansho the Bailiff ★★★★½

This eerie and emotionally wrenching melodrama, lifted from feudal Japanese folklore, restrains nothing in depicting the miseries of a wrongly disgraced family, and accumulates so many tragedies and acts of brutality it could easily be accused of being too much if its compositions weren't so calmly beautiful or if the performances weren't so genuinely stirring, right up to a finale in which the lid completely comes off and we're permitted to see what feels like pure, undiluted grief and catharsis personified. The story has the sweep and weight of grand mythology, but the humane realism make it deeply affecting on a personal level. At so many unexpected moments, Mizoguchi is able to prompt a kind of visceral and pure reaction, and his exposure of love and sacrifice surrounded by uncaring misery becomes a manifestation of the selfless philosophy at the center of the narrative. Given the intricacy and grimness of the film's emotional threads, it's an extraordinary achievement that he remains so focused on filling the audience's heart with empathy and identification; the initial separation of parent from children by a nefarious wicked-witch human trafficker can leave one with absolutely desperate pangs, and the yearning that results lasts the rest of the film, pulled along with the ethereal capturings of a disrupted natural world by Mizoguchi's graceful camera. As in Ugetsu, he seems to dance on the edge of life and death in a manner that is both deeply felt and purely cinematic; I know of nothing else that feels quite like those two films.

I do find the film's title sort of befuddling; why is it named for a villain with comparatively little screen time, formidable and scary as he may be?