Movie 92: Sansho the Bailiff
Manly Footwear: Another film that I knew very little about, although I knew the director, Mizoguchi, from having seen Ugetsu many years ago. The pacing of this film is both perfectly elegant—“one-shot-one-scene”; long takes with deliberate, broad motions often occurring in the background; intensely deliberate mise-en-scène that nonetheless evokes spontaneity and naturalness—and perfectly jarring, given the relentlessly sad story and the untouched evil of the title character. The many shots contrasting the artifice of human culture with the wildness of nature amplify the effect, which is a bit like watching a torture scene in a snow globe. I loved it, of course.
16th century fop Castiglione first defined sprezzatura as “certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it,” and Sansho the Bailiff embodies the concept about as well as any film I’ve watched, but only as filtered through the Japanese idea of mono no aware, a sort of gently, pervasive melancholy about the transience of the world around us, and the fact that our awareness of said transience means we can never fully be a part of that same world. Only the most carefully staged work of art can communicate the casual, the imperfect, the fractured, in a way that allows the viewer to experience these sensations. Unintentionally casual, imperfect, fractured works of art can be interesting, but they cannot fully communicate those qualities as states of being the way film like Sansho the Bailiff does. I felt as though I were further along the road to being more fully human after watching it, and that is, I think, the highest praise I have to offer any experience.
Zushio and Anju are the children of a Japanese governor who tries to give basic human rite to his subjects and is banished by his lord for it. His wife and children are disgraced and are forced to rely on the charity of family for support. After a few years, that charity runs out and they are cast out and begin the arduous journey to reunite with their father.
Beautifully shot in black and white, the film somehow manages to pull in light and color when basic human kindness emerges again and again through a harrowing journey.
Father makes sure his son knows that everyone deserves rights and life regardless of birth and wealth. Mother ensures son repeats teachings over and over again so even daughter learns the teachings.
During the journey, the group is taken advantage of by an old woman, claiming to be a priestess, who literally sells them down the river to bandits. Their servant is drowned in the river as their mother is forced into a boat and then sold to a cruel governor on an island who forces her to become a prostitute.
The children are then sold to Sansho the bailiff, one of the cruelest men in the area. He buys people and then works them to death on his property. Anyone who tries to escape or becomes unable to work, experiences only cruelty and harshness. Sansho’s son tries to help the children, gives them new names to protect their given names from the harsh life ahead of them and cautions them to survive at all costs. He then leaves to petition the governor to intervene at his father’s estate.
Hardship cripples the mother, makes Zushio lose his way, and makes Anju determined to help whomever she can. A new slave sings a song that gives hope to the sister that their mother is still alive and searching for them.
Anju tries to get her brother to agree to escape with her. He refuses until they are asked to take a fellow slave into the woods to die. While gathering straw to keep her warm, Zushio remembers the trip with his family before the slave traders and finds hope and light again. He tells his sister they can leave now. Knowing they will be discovered too quickly if they both go, Anju tells him to leave and she will cover for him.
When his absence is discovered, Anju knows she must now protect her brother and walks into the lake so she won’t be able to give any information to the bailiff, a heart wrenching and beautiful scene, and a culmination of the lack of status that a woman had in that culture. Wanting only to ensure the safe passage of her brother back to their family, and knowing she would not have much of a life outside the bailiff’s compound because of what she’d endured (damaged goods and no dowry), she drowns herself and ends her life.
Zushio escapes and finds Sansho’s son at a nearby monastery. The monk helps Zushio get to the governor, who turns out to have been a friend of Zushio’s father. Zushio is given the governorship of the region that includes Sansho’s compound. He is cautioned against trying to continue his father’s misguided teachings but he ignores it all. He passes a decree making it illegal for anyone to own another person in his territory. He then returns to Sansho’s to rescue Anju. Upon learning of her death, he makes sure all of the slaves know they have been liberated and leaves the compound.
He then abdicates his governorship and travels to the province where his father was banished. When he finally arrives, he discovers his father died a few months earlier. He’s told his father was loved and respected and spent his life teaching others to read and write so they could help improve their station and making sure people knew their value and humanity.
Zushio then travels by boat to the island where the song that lead to his escape originated. He was told stories of the beautiful crazy courtesan who sang the haunting song over and over again and tried to escape so many times her owner hobbled her to prevent her from running ever again. He’s told she was no longer working but had moved to a cottage on the beach.
Arriving on the beach, he is told a tsunami had come through and killed his mother a few weeks earlier. Crushed, he sags onto a rock and hangs his head. Then he hears someone singing the song about pining for him and Anju. He follows the song and finds his mother, old, blind, and crippled. Zushio throws himself at his mother’s feet and cries that he tried to follow his father’s teachings, but failed because his father was dead, his sister was dead, and he’d thrown away his governorship and had arrived with nothing.
His mother says “I know you followed your father’s teachings because that’s what allowed us to see each other again.”
This film was remarkably good at showing how drastically different life was due to birth and extenuating circumstances for men and how disposable and worthless woman and children were seen in all castes.