Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.
Like the familiar legends that continue to inspire modern films about King Arthur, Robin Hood and other mythic figures, Sansho the Bailiff traces its lineage over the course of many centuries to anonymous storytellers who embellished a nugget of historical incident with details that suited their own agenda. For Western audiences who have not yet familiarized themselves with the cultural context from which Sansho the Bailiff emerged, this handsome Criterion DVD package offers a very helpful primer on the tale and at least a few of its numerous variations, including two literary versions of the story and a commentary track that emphasizes different ways the story has been told, including the original screenplay written for the film as compared to its final cut. The primary concern, of course, is the superb film by Kenji Mizoguchi, a powerful, emotionally gripping story of lost hope, noble sacrifice, moral perseverance and long-delayed redemption, crafted with impressive artistic subtlety - the kind of film that rewards close attention through multiple viewings, revealing new depths of beauty as the elements of the story become familiar and we're able to turn our attention away from plot and toward nuance. Each scene in Sansho the Bailiff contributes something significant in itself and essential to the overall unfolding of the story. Consider that Mizoguchi released this film just one year after the equally masterful (and exquisitely detailed) Ugetsu, with another film, Gion bayashi, in between! I find it impossible to not be amazed by his productivity and the sureness of his cinematic vision, and can only wonder at how he was able to achieve such sublime results.
Of course, Mizoguchi had plenty of practice up to this point in his life. Sansho the Bailiff is the 89th of 94 films he's credited with directing in his 58 years of life, most of which were silents, now lost or practically unobtainable. Only a dozen or so of his films have made it to Western-friendly DVD releases, and yet from reading just a sampling of reviews written about these latter films of Mizoguchi's career, it seems that more ought to be on the way, if for no other reason than to see if we can retrace the steps that led this man to create such indelible masterworks that rival the accomplishments of his more celebrated peers among Japanese directors, Kurosawa and Ozu.
The film version of Sansho the Bailiff presents a naturalistic, demythologized approach to an ancient story of a noble family's sufferings. It opens with a tranquil scene of a traveling party walking through the woods. We see Tamaki, a mother, her son Zushio and daughter Anju, and a servant woman who accompanies them, as they're embarked on a long, perilous journey to reunite with Taira Masauji, the husband, father and governor of a province who was sent into exile because of what his militaristic superiors regarded as excessive leniency toward the peasants in a time of war. Before his forced departure, Taira impresses upon Zushio the importance of living by this benevolent principle at all costs: "Without mercy, man is like a beast." As the family travels, intent on traversing practically the full distance from one end of Japan to the other to reunite, we see Zushio reciting his father's teachings and holding an effigy of Kwannon, a Buddhist goddess that somewhat resembles how the Virgin Mary functions within Christianity. This brief exchange between father and son is crucial to understanding all that follows afterward, so pay attention!
Naturally, once so much emphasis is placed upon the quality of mercy, it's put under serious strain as Tamaki, Zushio and Anju are cruelly tricked by a seemingly kind woman who offers her assistance in their perilous journey but turns them over to slave-traders after she's won the family's trust. The mother is separated from her children and they're sent not merely to different slave-camps but separate islands, adding another layer of hardship to their hopes of eventual reunion. After this heart-wrenching turn of events, the film focuses mainly on the plight of the children, with just a pair of brief scenes showing Tamaki's desperate attempts to escape her captors and the awful price she has to pay as a consequence for seeking out her children. This separation leads her to wail a mournful dirge, a song of lament that seems to be one of the primal elements of the old legend that ties the variants together and probably made the story more readily familiar to its original audience than it is to most of us today.
With Japan's traditional emphasis on patriarchy, it's natural for both the narrative and the audience to focus on what happens to Zushio; after all, he is the son, the first born, the presumptive heir to his father's title and dignity. Mizoguchi honors and follows that convention - to a point. Zushio is the child who ultimately redeems himself and survives to the film's gripping conclusion, but he's also the one who fails most catastrophically at following his father's admonishments. After a flash-forward of about ten years, the decade of captivity has worn down his resolve and turned him into an willing accomplice of Sansho the Bailiff, the harsh taskmaster who bought Anju and Zushio as children and works as manager of a large imperial estate that operates on slave-labor. Despite the film's title, Sansho the Bailiff only plays a support role, and we really don't get much information on what makes him tick. Sansho is a hard man, capable of cruel, relentless measures like branding captured runaways on the forehead with a hot iron if that's what's needed to keep the slaves in check. But for the most part, Sansho is unexceptional (other than that funky spiked-out beard, anyway): he's a middle-manager, an upholder of the status quo, a man just carrying out his responsibilities. I'm sure that Mizoguchi's original audience knew plenty of characters just like him serving in the supporting apparatus that facilitated Japan's slide into militaristic madness and the resulting devastations of World War II.
Still, given Sansho's clout, authority and iron-grip on his estate, it's no surprise that Zushio would eventually capitulate, agreeing to brand an old man at Sansho's command - an order that Sansho's own son Taro had earlier refused, leading him to commit his own act of mercy on behalf of sibling slaves Anju and Zushio prior to abandoning his own birthright and leaving his father's estate in order to become a temple priest. Anju (played by Kyoko Kagawa, the youngest daughter in Tokyo Story) rebukes her brother, which only provokes him to reveal the despair he's fallen into. Realizing that her brother is on a path to ruin if he's not redirected, Anju seizes a moment of opportunity that facilitates his escape, but only at a great cost to herself, in this life anyway. Anju's beneficent gesture, one of the most moving and exquisite acts of compassionate self-sacrifice I've seen on film, haunts my visual imagination.
Meanwhile, Zushio, unaware of his sister's demise, continues on the trek that his mother first led them to so many years previously. Taking refuge in a temple, he reunites with Taro, Sansho the Bailiff's son, reinforcing the uncanny ways that Heaven shows its benevolence to those who pursue its path. Taro's protection and influence helps Zushio, in a roundabout way, to win audience with an old associate of his father's, despite yet a few more discouraging setbacks, all seemingly aimed at thwarting Zushio's determination, pushing him to collapse into cynical rage or apathy.
Masasue, the governor to whom Zushio appeals for clemency, recognizes the Kwammon figure that one of his ancestors gave to Zushio's family as a token for good service. This happy coincidence propels Zushio to a governorship of his own. He uses his newly advanced position to act upon the counsel of his late but not forgotten father, a final act of filial duty that extends blessings upon many, but only at great cost to his prestige, even risking his own life. Forced, like his father, to forsake the privileges of authority in order to serve his higher calling, Zushio finds himself once again stripped down to practically nothing - a lone figure wandering an impassive landscape, searching for his mother. He finds her at last, a survivor of a natural catastrophe after a tsunami has swept through a village, leading to a poignant, tear-inducing reunion that can probably only be fully appreciated by those who have closely followed the sufferings that both have endured and have their own stories of separation and reconciliation that can connect with the grievously joyful scene that concludes Sansho the Bailiff.