Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sansho The Bailiff [Kenji Mizoguchi]

I liked Ugetsu Monogatari by the famous-but-not-as-famous-as-Kurosawa Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, but was told by those in the know that the skilfully crafted supernatural elements laced story is not typical of Mizoguchi's oeuvre and was recommended Sansho The Bailiff (STB) as a more representative work. Having duly seen it, I would say that while STB has its qualities, ones that would appeal more to those who regard cinema as an observation / critique of social structure and traditions, Ugetsu remains my preferred film by the director.
Set sometime in the Heian period of Japanese history (800-1200AD), STB's protagonists are Zushio and Anju, son and daughter of a compassionate governor who was exiled for trying to defend his subjects against the exploitative ordinances of the ruling class. When on a journey to join their father at his new station, the children are separated from their mother by slave traders and sold as servants at the house of the titular bailiff. Given that the story is always more focused on the doings of the Zushio and Anju, it's hard to understand why the film is named after him. Sansho's character has no depth either, he's the archetypal hard-ass that believes in working his slaves to the bone and punishing those that try to escape.
The brother and sister pair grow up in this harsh environment; While Zushio blindly follows his master's ruthless commands, including the branding of errant co-workers, Anju is the self-sacrificing stereotype. When one day Zushio is ordered to dump an aged slave in the mountains, Anju accompanies and persuades him to escape and search for their mother. With a promise to return, Zushio flees and in a convoluted way, comes to occupy the governorship his father once had. He comes back to the bailiff's house only to find, in true tear-jerker tradition, his sister long-dead.
So yes, if you like the unbridled predictable melodrama on display here or need a film to tell you how basic human rights of freedom, equality and justice were denied by a small ruling class coterie to the masses at large, STB does the job fine. It also doesn't hurt that Mizoguchi is a very skilled helmsman who has made excellent use of the camera (Kazuo Miyagawa - Rashomon) and editing (Mitsuzo Miyata - Ugetsu) resources at hand. The sequences of the kidnapping of the children, Zushio's escape from the bailiff's yoke, and Anju's death are particularly notable, and even in general the framing and splicing of scenes makes it obvious that he had very exact ideas of how the script would be filmed. But Ugetsu had equal or better examples of his fine directorial skill and was a more interesting narrative to boot.

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