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Sansho the Baliff is a 1954 Japanese period film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Based on a short story of the same name, it is often considered one of Mizoguchi’s finest films.

A family is literally torn apart when a governor in feudal Japan who is wrongly exiled due to the compassion & justness he shows his constituents & the subsequent trials of his wife, son & daughter who are separated & sold into prostitution & slavery.

Water and fire are key to the imagery of this classic quest storyline. But, while the setting may be the 11th century, Mizoguchi explores the idea that humanity is debased without pity to consider the recent clash between liberal benevolence and totalitarian tyranny. Mizoguchi’s humanism may have been less idealistic than in his first golden phase in the 1930s, but his loathing of subjugation and injustice was just as strong. However, it finds more eloquent expression in his later career, thanks to his mastery of technique.

Cinematographer & frequent collaborator of Kenji Mizoguchi, Kazuo Miyagawa had pioneered the use of tracking and crane shots to duplicate the composition and mood of traditional Japanese paintings. So, he was perfectly in tune with Mizoguchi’s emphasis on the diagonal elements within the frame and his subtle use of camera movement and distance to keep the figures located within their symbolic environment. Whether following the characters to bind the viewer into the drama or retreating to a contemplative distance (which had been his preferred style in his earlier career), Mizoguchi sought to suggest both the realism of the action and its location within a wider world, a tactic that culminated in the concluding shot in which the Miyagawa accompanies Yoshiaki Hanayagi as he nears his reunion with the now blind Kinuyo Tanaka before pulling upwards to reveal the beachcomber gathering seaweed following the tidal wave.

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The scene of the separation and abduction of the mother and children, captured in nearly one long take, is still one of cinema’s most frightening and affecting sequences. The woman pleads and shrieks as she is dragged into one boat, her children into another, her woeful wailing accompanied on the soundtrack by the hysterical ascensions of a wooden flute, the direct musical expression of all her bewildered panic and terror. The scene is unsparing in its depiction of human grief and trauma.

Mizoguchi lays out his backstory through deft cross-temporal dissolves linked compositionally by objects, figures and gestures, from past to further past to the film’s present to past again. Happier times with the family dissolve forward to images of the mother reminiscing, which then dissolve back again to images of the father preparing for his exile.

All this time travel is clarified through visual choices: the son as a toddler runs diagonally one way, and the next shot of him, as an adolescent, reflects or counters the movement; or, in one very fine composite dissolve, a shot of the melancholy wife sipping from a cup in the “present” on one side of the screen meshes symmetrically with a shot of the father, in the past, performing a similar gesture, the two indelibly attached by this cinematic web of memory.

Zushio manages eventually to become governor, his first and only decree the abolishment of slavery. Having lost both father and sister, he resigns his post in order to search for his mother. In the film’s final scene, which film scholar Mark Le Fanu characterizes, in his excellent booklet essay, as one of “grandeur and distilled poignancy”, Zushio finds her, blind and hobbled on the shoreline, singing a song (another of the film’s many motifs) for her long lost children—across the sea, across the continent, across time: “My Anju, I yearn for you…My Zushio, I yearn for you…”

Sansho the Bailiff leaves a prolonged feeling of sadness when watching it for the first time, perhaps because Mizoguchi’s film ponders more than just drama but an empyreal element relative to the human spirit. Humankind becomes an allegory for nature, and the inverse. Stories such as this, which are passed down in the oral tradition into more tangible media, meander through time like a river. We get the sense that Mizoguchi’s film does not matter in the grand scheme, that someone will tell “Sansho the Bailiff” a hundred years from now without benefit of the cinema. This in turn makes the film all the more important; such an orphic cinematic message beyond the importance of “film itself” is rarely presented in motion pictures.

References:

PopMatters.

Suffering Stripped to Its Lineaments: ‘Sansho the Bailiff’

In-text: (PopMatters 2013)

Bibliography: PopMatters. 2013. Suffering Stripped to Its Lineaments: ‘Sansho the Bailiff’. [online] Available at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/169775-the-criterion-collection-sansho-the-bailiff/ [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].

Theseventhart.info.

Sansho the Bailiff review | The Seventh Art

In-text: (Theseventhart.info 2009)

Bibliography: Theseventhart.info. 2009. Sansho the Bailiff review | The Seventh Art. [online] Available at: http://theseventhart.info/tag/sansho-the-bailiff-review/ [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].

En.wikipedia.org.

Sansho the Bailiff – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In-text: (En.wikipedia.org 2013)

Bibliography: En.wikipedia.org. 2013. Sansho the Bailiff – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sansho_the_Bailiff [Accessed: 23 Jun 2013].

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