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  Sansho the Bailiff To Suffer Is To LiveBuy this film here.
Year: 1954
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Stars: Kinoyu Tanaka, Yoshiaki Honayagi, Kyôko Kagawa, Eitarô Shindô, Akitake Kôno, Masao Shimizu, Ken Mitsuda, Kazukimi Okuni, Yôko Kosono, Kimiko Tachibana, Ichirô Sugai, Teruko Ômi, Masahiko Tsugawa, Keiko Unami, Bontarô Akemi, Chieko Naniwa
Genre: Drama, Historical
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Eleventh Century Japan was a time of the Dark Ages, there as well as everywhere else in the world, and life was harsh for anyone who was not part of the ruling authority, with slavery rife and poverty as able to kill as one of the overlords who ruled the country with an iron fist. But one governor was wedded to his newfound ideals of being benevolent towards his suspects, and for that reason he bred antagonism around him for not toeing the line when it came to the peasants. Be tough on yourself, but merciful above all with others, was the governor's motto, would that those others have been as forward-thinking as eventually his position was under so much threat that he was deposed...

Kenji Mizoguchi can lay claim to being one of the first feminist directors, purely because he was offered so much material by his studios that focused on a women's perspective, and more pertinently suffering of women in a world ordered by men. He was dismissive of his own work, excusing his usual subjects by saying it was all he was offered and he was essentially "typecast" at the helm of pictures more often than not of a historical bent, centring on a female character who is put through the mill. He gathered praise around the world for these compassionate depictions, but setting aside his explanation for his forte, this film especially could illustrate a drawback with that.

If anything, Mizoguchi's high critical standing was thanks to him setting women as victims in his fiction, and though it was not always the case, having those characters dragged excruciatingly through an endurance test as happens in Sansho the Bailiff was maybe not as positive a portrait of their durability as many would prefer to believe. Quite apart from the fact that he was imposing what was more like a twentieth century Western perspective on the long distant past, therefore not as authentic a telling of this venerated folk tale as some may think, the women here were sympathetic largely because he had us watching their downfall through the eyes of a modern morality.

In addition, as the film was absolutely unrelenting in its misery, perhaps to illustrate how the director's time was a definite improvement on the treatment of those Dark Ages by contrast, fair enough but there was little in the experience of sitting through Sansho the Bailiff that offered any hope not tempered by dejection. It was not the story of Sansho, he was barely in it though he was instrumental in bringing about various tragedies as he is a slave master who capitalises on the toiling of his workers by dint of the fact, first, he doesn't need to pay them, second, there is nothing in the law to prevent him, and third, he uses intimidation and violence to keep them in line, often to the point of mutilating those slaves as punishment. Not a nice guy, but we are invited to see this harsh world through the eyes of two of those oppressed.

They are a brother and sister who Mizoguchi retooled the legend to revolve around - the offspring of that unfortunate governor, who ten years ago was separated from them, and his wife, and then they were separated from each other by bandits who sold the mother into prostitution and made Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanagi) and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa, one of the most respected Japanese actresses) into those aforementioned slaves. Zushio was really our main character, or he had the most scenes anyway, but Anju was important too for as the ruination of her spirit progressed, it was she who reminded her sibling not to give up the ideals of their father, no matter how much brutality threatened to beat that out of them. Meanwhile, the mother has her Achilles tendons slashed to stop her running away again. Although this sounds unendurably depressing, the small light of hope that better times were ahead kept you watching, even if those better times were eight hundred years in the future. For some, this is a hugely moving film, and it was exquisitely rendered, but for others, it has issues that may not spoil it, but do give you pause for thought.

[The Criterion Collection Blu-ray has the following features:

New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary featuring Japanese-literature scholar Jeffrey Angles
Interviews with critic Tadao Sato, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and actress Kyoko Kagawa on the making of the film and its lasting importance
PLUS: An essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu; plus two versions of the story on which the film is based: Ogai Mori's 1915 "Sansho the Steward" and an earlier oral variation in written form.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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