Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, Japan 1954)

This was the third of the films featuring Tanaka Kinuyo screened in 2012. This was a film that I had seen before on 35mm, unlike the other titles. It is one of the great films by Mizoguchi Kenji with whom Tanaka worked on a number of occasions.

The post contains plot information and the quotations are from the English sub-titles.

The film opens with a set of titles on-screen, setting out the story:

“This story dates from medieval Japan when there was a form of feudal society. The majority of the people were considered less than human. This legend has been told since those days.”

In the manner of legends the exact times and places are not spelt out. It is apparently set in the 11th century. This was a period of imperial rule with the capital in Kyoto though the military class exercised effective power. In is mainly from the dialogue that ages and places can be discerned. The film falls into three segments separated by time and space; again only discernible in the dialogue. The titular character, the bailiff of a mansion of a high official, only appears in the second segment, forty minutes into the film.

After the initial titles the film presents a family on a journey. There is the mother Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo): her son Zushiô (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) now about 13 years: her daughter Anju, (Kagawa Kyôko) aged about seven: and a woman servant, Ubatake (Naniwa Chieko). As they walk through the Japanese countryside there are several flashbacks, not obviously motivated’ but apparently the memories of Tamaki; mainly opened and closed by lap dissolves. These are set six years earlier when her husband Mausaji Taira no (Shimizu Masao), the father of the children, was the Governor of a province, Mutsu. Provinces were the basic level of administration in Feudal Japan; and this large province was in the North East alongside the sea.

The Governor had fallen foul of military leaders by opposing increased conscription of the peasants. His humanity had made him popular with the ordinary people but not with officials. As a punishment he is sent into exile to the province of Tsukushi, far away in the south of Japan. We see his support amongst the poor. And we see the farewells to his family who are to stay with Tamaki’s brother. When he parts from Zushiô the father recites his philosophy to his son and gives him an amulet, the Goddess of Mercy.

“Without mercy, a man is like a beast. Be sympathetic to others. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.”

These mantras will be repeated at key stages of the subsequent narrative and the amulet becomes an important icon in the story.

On their journey the family are misled by a woman claiming to be a priestess. The result is the death of Ubatake, Tamaki being sold into prostitution and the children sold into slave labour.

We now encounter the mansion of which Sansho is the Bailiff (Shindo Eitaro). He is a brutal and exploitative master; illustrated by the branding of an inmate who attempts escape. However his son Taro (Kono Akitake) is critical of his father’s brutality and attempts to ease the plight of the labourers; then leaving the mansion for Kyoto. The children do not reveal their names for fear of the consequences, [the possibility of ransom demands?]. For their time at the mansion they are known as Mutsu and Shinobu.

There is an ellipsis of ten tears and now Zushiô/Mutsu is 23 and Anju/Shinobu is 17, Zushiô has been brutalised over time and has become an overseer. The illustration is when he brands another would-be escapee. Anju remains committed to the teachings of their father. In an important sequence she hears a new girl worker sing a song;

“How I long for you, Zushiô, Anju”

On Sado Island [in the sea of Japan] Tamaki {now called Nakayama] desperately tries to flee and find her lost children. As a punishment she is hamstrung and disabled. We see her singing her sad refrain. Anju realises this is their mother pining for her children. She tells Zushiô but he is immured in their situation.

An opportunity now arises for Zushiô and Anju to escape when they have to carry an aged woman, no longer able to work, to a place to die alone. . But to prevent her brother’s recapture Anju remains and commits suicide rather than betray Zushiô. He gains sanctuary in an Imperial Monastery where he meets Taro again; now a Buddhist monk.

In the final section Zushiô journeys to the capital Kyoto. His father has died recently and it is too late to reinstate him. However, the injustice suffered is recognised and Zushiô is appointed Governor of the province of Tango, which contains the Mansion overseen by Sansho.. Once there Zushiô goes even farther than his father and confronts Sansho and the system of forced labour. He then journeys to Sado Island and after some travails find his mother in a hovel on a beach, now blind as well as crippled. He has to tell her of the death of both her husband and her daughter. Whilst they comfort each other he shows his mother the amulet of the Goddess of Mercy that he still carries.

His mother responds,

“I do know that you followed your father’s words. That is … that is why we can meet here now.”

The scene and the film end with a crane shot which pans across the beach and rests two small islands: offering what critics have called a transcendental conclusion to the film: reinforcing the humanist values which are embodied in the film. The ending uses as music woodblocks, flutes and a harp, adds an appropriate emotional tone. The whole films show the command of Mizoguchi and his craft team, especially cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo, of visual style: there are frequent graceful tracking shot and the mise en scene uses the landscape to great effect: physically beautiful on occasions, grimly realistic on others. The contrasting vistas add to the dramatisation of the story. When we first encounter the family the landscape is beautifully set; at one point they traverse a bed of flowered reeds. One spot is where Zushiô and Anju collect wood and reeds for a night time shelter. This scene has a parallel in the woody spot just before Zushiô’s escape, offering a motivation for his change of heart. Later the open and large seascape when the family are seized has an appropriately desolate feel. The mansion of Sansho is a grim setting as is the hovel on Sado island. These contrast with the opulent and highly formal setting of Kyoto, the Governor’s palace and the reception offered by Sansho to an emissary of the owner. And the monastery presents a solemn silent space rudely disrupted by Sansho armed retainers; and Taro’s care a contrast to the brutal treatment of the serfs in the mansion. The music, led by the woodblocks, flutes and harp has occasional orchestral backing but is minimal only accompanying key scenes. The harp dominates in the sequence as Anju slowly walks into the lake in a sacrificial suicide. Parallel music accompanies the scene as Zushiô stands by the lake mourning his sister. And the song we hear in the sequence showing Tamaki prostituted on Sado island re-appears in the final sequence but now the crippled Tamaki can hardly sing the words and mostly she is just humming theme.

The cast are excellent. Tanaka Kinuyo has an important presence in the opening section; following this she appears in shorter sequences in the middle and concluding sections. In the course of the film she is changed from a formally attired aristocratic lady to a crippled and poverty stricken old woman. This is a part of the powerful and tragic development in the film.

The critical sense in the narrative also develops. Mausaji Taira opposes the ruling of the military elite but accepts the punishment laid down. But when Zushiô becomes a governor he is warned not to overstep the bounds but deliberately does this and confronts the unjust laws. Immediately he resigns knowing that this will lead to his punishment. So his conduct is more radical than that of his father thought the oppressive system remains. An audience may wonder what happens to the protagonist after mother and son are reunited. But they should also wonder if the oppressive serf system will not be re-imposed when a new Governor takes office.

Mizoguchi was one of the directors in the 1950s who bought Japanese cinema to the attention of western critics and audiences. A number of the films were winners of prestigious awards at European film festivals; Sansho dayu won the Silver Lion Award at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, alongside Kurosawa Akira’s Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai.

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