Sansho the Bailiff ★★★★

There are a few things about Sancho the Bailiff that are memorable and I foresee replaying a scene or two in my mind for a few days or weeks to come, but there is nothing in it that I found particularly exciting. I can definitely see this film being the subject of study for all of its technical prowess, lovely cinematography, and the calming effect of the long camera shots and the music which serve the story perfectly. It is very well put together. The story is nice, touching even at times, but it is not a film that I will eagerly revisit.

Perhaps one of the problems is one of cultural distance. The political allusions seem quaint to the modern Western mind. "Without mercy, man is like a beast" is something we must all know by now, even though many of us might still need the reminder. "Man is created equal" seems antiquated, and "no one should be denied happiness" seems particularly American, something anyone living in the Western world believes to be a precept of natural law. Perhaps these were important statements in Japan in the 50s. Perhaps my ignorance of Japanese culture and its evolution is preventing me from seeing the import of such statements.

But that isn't really my main criticism. The problem I had with the film is that it lacked subtlety at times. The repetition of the father's words throughout the film wasn't required because we were being shown their meaning. I'm reminded here of Red Beard, where Kurosawa showed us what was at stake rather than having characters say it. In Sancho the Bailiff the visuals and the story show us the dire consequences of a world without equality. We don't need to be told as well, especially more than once.

Another example is when the brother and sister were gathering the grass to shelter the dying Namiji. We already know that this scene repeats what they did in Naoe Port when they were younger, shortly before they were separated from their mother. It was a beautiful scene, moving even, until Anju started speaking, only to say exactly what we were thinking. This was a crucial scene, and I think that moment was the beginning of Zushio's conversion, even before hearing his mother's song, and perhaps that is why Mizoguchi felt he had to tell the audience what to think, but in so doing the scene lost some of its charm.

Speaking of Zushio's transformation, I wish the film had done without it. I began to disconnect from the film when the story shifted to the older kids, in particular when Zushio denounced his father's teachings. It came out of the blue and I never had time to process it. Nor am I convinced it was necessary. His second transformation upon hearing his mother's song was also as quick and again felt jarring and out of place. If I read correctly, it wasn't in the original story, and I don't think anything of importance was served by it, or at least nothing that couldn't have been shown some other way.

By this point I had no investment in Zushio at all which I'm sure contributed to a certain detachment on my part. I was impressed by his actions as governor and pleasantly surprised to see the story take a turn shortly after that, but nothing could make me sympathize with him. It didn't help that I wasn't at all a fan of Yoshiaki Hanayagi's performance. His was the only one that was exaggerated and overplayed, and to tell the truth I thought he was a loud snivelling bore who whined altogether too much. Perhaps he was meant to be. Perhaps Mizoguchi wanted to emphasize that it was the women in the story who were level-headed, grounded and moral. If that is the case, then it is another example of obviousness that was not required.

The women in the film, on the other hand, were outstanding. Kinuyo Tanaka was perfect as the mother whose anguish at losing her children was depicted through a haunting and beautiful musical leitmotif: "Zushio, How I long for you, Isn't life a torture? Anju, How I long for you, Isn't life a torture?" Here is were Mizoguchi's use of repetition worked perfectly. It was used not only to reflect the mother's pain, but to reach out to her children . It is what gives Anju hope and what transforms Zushio. Whenever I heard it I was mesmerized. If I recall correctly there was another piece of music associated with the mother. I'm not sure what the instrument is called (a flute of sorts?), but it is played in the beginning, at the very end, and a few other times throughout the film but only when the mother was on screen, and I think only when she was with her children. If the plaintive song was her soul in despair, this one played when she was at peace.

Kyôko Kagawa was perfect as well in her role as the daughter Anju. Her courage, tenderness and grace shone through every frame and while Zushio became the one to affect the most dramatic change in the province, it is Anju whose moral fortitude helped him see that such change was necessary.

The tale is very much about the women. The father may have been the philosopher and the son may have been his pupil, and together they may have affected political change, but it is the mother and daughter who embody the moral fortitude and courage on which these philosophical/political principles are built. Like in Ugetsu, the men pursue grander notions and ideas while the women ground these ideas in real truths.

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