I’m so moved. This is not only one of the greatest film of Mizoguchi but also tell us a very important precept which is almost forgotten. Kenji Mizoguchi made an epic film from what was (apparently) a centuries-old Japanese morality tale. We watch a well-to-do family slowly disintegrate – not from events they cause, but those out of their control. How they each react, how they deal with the passing years and events, and how they find solutions (if any) are powerful, emotional, lessons in life. Can a half-century old Japanese film be useful to a contemporary American audience? Of course it can. And thanks to Criterion, you can now own this classic on blu-ray high def transfer.
The mother is shipped to an island community to serve as a prostitute while the children, remaining on the mainland, are sold as slaves to the evil Sansho the Bailiff. The title is misleading as this is essentially the children’s story. Growing up in captivity the youth temporarily loses his sense of morality when he realizes that he can exist more comfortably as his master’s henchman. The rest of the film deals with his redemption, the consequence of which is to make the world just a slightly better place. Although the morality of the story is stated in the most simple of terms, the film wields considerable power. Like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi is an outstanding director of action sequences, so that the waylaying of the family and the attempted escapes from Sansho’s compound have a real sense of immediacy – he is a master orchestrator of the tracking shot.
It captured the silver lion at Venice in 1954, along with Seven Samurai. This film is a masterpiece, and Mizoguchi is one of the greatest directors of all time. His films portray the dramatic “story” perfectly. A Mizoguchi film lets you not simply watch a narrative, but feel it and experience it as well, more so than in most other movies you’ll probably watch. His most moving moments, including the ending in Sansho, as well as Ugetsu, produce moments of genuine pathos in the viewer: their is no hint of over-dramatization or sentimentality. Simply stunning. The movie is one of those great visual poems of grief and hope. The story is told in a hundred shades of gray, both emotionally and in the exquisitely presented black-and-white photography. The simplicity of the story and the beauty of the images almost make the story seem a misty dream, except the mist is largely made of tears.
Watching Sansho the Bailiff is an emotional, gut-wrenching experience, yet worth every second (and then some) of your involvement. As many others have commented here over the years, this film is a masterpiece. In short: Alongside Ozu’s and Kurosawa’s masterpieces Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” is one of the classic Japanese films one definitely should check out. The story is rudimentary, not very complicated, and the movie is in black and white with subtitles. But this is a tragedy of the sort that is universal in its appeal. Well worth catching, as long as you have some patience during the establishing scenes.