Any lover of art films is eventually going to have to deal with the question, “Why do you watch such depressing movies?” I normally have a ready answer: because sad movies can give you the joy of catharsis, that having a good cry at the movies paradoxically makes me as happy as just about anything. But every once in a while, there’s a film that makes me question that. Sansho the Bailiff is undeniably a great movie, but it’s also a hard one to recommend. Can you really enjoy the pain that director Kenji Mizoguchi puts his characters through, especially when he does it in such a way that you feel it as if it were happening to you? The ending, on paper, is happy, with a reunion between two family members who have been trying to find each other over the film’s entire running time. But is that brief moment of happiness really enough to outweigh the intense suffering of the preceding two hours? Or, as Roger Ebert said when he reviewed Sansho for his Great Movies series, “Does the story have a happy ending? No. But it has resolution, reconciliation, forgiveness (although not of Sansho).” Ebert quotes the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane: “I have seen ‘Sansho’ only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”
The story opens with Tamaki, the wife of a former governor journeying with her children, Zushio and Anju, to visit their father in exile. They have to sleep outside because the emperor has passed a law banning his citizens from housing strangers to discourage bandits. This is the upside-down moral universe Sansho the Bailiff takes place in. Cruelty is the law of the land, and kindness is a crime. The good governor is exiled for protecting his people from the harsh taxes his peers want to impose on them, and Sansho is offered honors and promotions when his overseer sees how harshly he treats his slaves. The new law even causes exactly what it was designed to prevent: left out in the cold, the governor’s family are easy prey for bandits who offer them a room for the night and safe passage across the river, but actually sell them into slavery. Tamaki becomes a geisha on another island; her children are sold to Sansho the Bailiff. Despite the title, he’s not a major character; Mizoguchi actually resented the studio for scuttling his plans for a more Sansho-centered script, which would have focused even more intensely on the historical realities of slavery, in favor of one that followed Zushio’s quest for freedom. But as played by Eitarô Shindô, Sansho is still a memorable presence, with his deep, rumbling growl and his bristly catfish beard. Sansho the Bailiff was based on a children’s story, and amid all the stark realism, its title character stands out with all the archetypal power of a fairy tale villain, the Big Bad Wolf in human clothing.
As an adult, Zushio escapes and claims his birthright in order to make sure no other slaves suffer as he did. The title card describes the feudal period in terms far from the glorious past of most jidaigeki (period pieces), let alone the nationalist wartime propaganda that was still a fresh memory, as “an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.” A little close to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” maybe; but maybe also a necessary overcorrection. Certainly, the movie is an indictment of feudalism as a system, both in history and in its modern legacy, of a government that prioritizes maintaining its own power of the needs of the people. Zushio often repeats his father’s words, which echo the American occupiers’ Declaration of Independence, and the occupation’s own Constitution of 1947: “Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.” On the Criterion edition, film critic and historian Tadao Sato says, “Films made after Japan lost the war shared a very important theme: how to change Japanese society into a democratic one. Some directors reluctantly complied and incorporated that theme by order of the Occupation. But Mizoguchi, even before the war, was making films depicting women rebelling against men’s oppression; so his work on that theme was sincere.”
Sato also connects the performances in Sansho to the traditions of kabuki and noh theater. But while that might conjure up images of stagy theatricality, the most striking thing about the acting here is its raw realism. It’s almost hard to think of it as acting — how can anyone bare their emotions so completely and un-self-consciously if they know they’re being watched? Their voices are raw and ragged; Kinuyo Tanaka, who plays Tamaki, actually refused to eat any rich food during filming to get the proper effect. The acting is over-the-top, but it sails right past stagy exaggeration and into intense immediacy: frequently, their screams of anguish and desperation actually blow out their mics. It’s an effect like what Brian Eno describes as, “the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it.”
Out of all these performances, stage actor Yoshiaki Hanayagi’s as Zushio stands out. He displays incredible versatility as he plays through his character’s emotional journey, from the heartless, emotionless “good slave,” to total abjectness, to regal implacability. But amid all the gutwrenching intensity of the performances, Sansho’s most powerful moments are often its subtlest. Zushio helps Anju cut down a branch, resonating with an earlier scene where we saw them as happy little children, brutally underlining how far they’ve fallen. The transitions between the flashback sequences and the family journeying to find their father allow the mother and father to briefly be reunited through a dissolve. And one character dies by silently, stoically walking into the ocean, like James Mason would the same year in A Star Is Born. We never see her face, only a single long shot remaining impassively behind her until she disappears. You can see Sansho’s influence in Mouchette as the French master filmmaker Robert Bresson uses it to make something somehow even more devastating. And you can see it in the films of Martin Scorsese. The famous phone call scene in Taxi Driver uses the same technique Mizoguchi applies to the torture scenes here; as Ebert describes it, “Mizoguchi’s elegant camera movement almost creates the illusion that we are not only looking along with him, but sometimes looking away, choosing not to see. The camera does not move away from certain actions so much as decline to notice them, often because they are too painful or personal.” And Sansho casts a long shadow over Silence. The prison scenes combine the abject intensity of Sansho’s performances with a set that closely resembles the cell where Zushio is imprisoned after he tries to get an audience with the prime minister. Sansho the Bailiff’s emotional power has endured for generations, and its message of compassion will remain timeless; until, at least, mankind finally awakens as human beings.