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Sansho the Bailiff (The Criterion Collection) (1955)

Kinuyo Tanaka , Yoshiaki Hanayagi , Kenji Mizoguchi  |  Unrated |  DVD
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)

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Product Details

  • Actors: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Ky˘ko Kagawa, Eitar˘ Shind˘, Akitake K˘no
  • Directors: Kenji Mizoguchi
  • Writers: Fuji Yahiro, Ogai Mori, Yoshikata Yoda
  • Producers: Masaichi Nagata
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Black & White, Dolby, Full Screen, NTSC, Subtitled
  • Language: Japanese
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: Unrated
  • Studio: Criterion Collection
  • DVD Release Date: May 22, 2007
  • Run Time: 124 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B000NOK0H6
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #112,026 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "Sansho the Bailiff (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description


On certain days, and in certain moods, it would be easy enough to declare that Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff is the greatest movie ever made. No disrespect intended to Citizen Kane or The Rules of the Game or North by Northwest, for on certain other days those movies might be Numero Uno. But Mizoguchi's magnificent 1954 film is in the running. The story is a kind of emotional epic, although it's quite simple in its outline: a family in medieval Japan is brutally broken up, the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) carried off into prostitution and two children sold into slavery. When the children, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), are grown, their bondage to the pitiless slaveowner Sansho will end, but in different ways.

The arc of this story is beautiful in itself, but Mizoguchi's telling of the tale is extraordinary. His moving camera seems weightless, and he effortlessly reminds us of how we've returned to certain key images that chart the progress of the characters: the breaking of a tree branch, the way water can swallow up a life, a song that ties together different lives and different places. As for the final sequence, it achieves a rare power, a mix of emotional tones reminiscent of the end of The Searchers. Mizoguchi made Sansho (Sansho Dayu in its original title) after having made The Life of Oharu and Ugetsu in the previous two years--surely one of the great creative bursts for any filmmaker. Yes, lavish praise can sometimes be dangerous, but now that we've got your attention, Sansho will make its own eloquent case. --Robert Horton

On the DVD
The Criterion Collection has a beautiful print of Sansho the Bailiff and a few illuminating extras. Most valuable are the new interviews with three people who knew Mizoguchi: a critic, an assistant director, and actress Kyoko Kagawa; all emphasize Mizoguchi as a director obsessed with the acting (and a taskmaster in the William Wyler-Stanley Kubrick mode), and suggest that his soaring use of long takes was designed to serve the performances. A booklet gives two versions of the original story source, plus a thoughtful essay by Mark Le Fanu. The commentary by Japanese-literature professor Jeffrey Angles puts its emphasis on cultural background rather than film criticism. --Robert Horton

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
64 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A man without mercy is no man March 2, 2007
There is much praise heaped upon Mizoguchi Kenji's "Sansho the Bailiff," including the box cover calling it "one of the finest films ever made." I probably wouldn't go that far, but it is an excellent movie ranking amongst the best of the genre, standing tall with Kurosawa Akira films such as "Red Beard." It is very heavy, with a strong message.

Like Kurosawa, social responsibility is a strong theme in Mizoguchi's works. In "Sansho the Bailiff," we see a blending of the social classes, as an honest aristocrat is exiled, his wife sold to a brothel and his children made slaves, all because the aristocrat believed peasants deserved happiness as well, and that the aristocratic class had responsibilities to the peasants. Mixed together, you see cruelty and mercy amongst both classes, from the tyrannical Sansho and his friendly son Taro, or the martyred slave Namiji and the cruel Zushio willing to brand another slave on the head with a hot iron.

To this there is the message of mercy. "Be hard on yourself, but merciful to others" is the mantra passed from parent to child. A sacred image of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, is a family heirloom, passed down from generations as a reminder.

As in all Mizoguchi's films, it is ultimately the women who suffer, bearing the sins of men on their capable shoulders. Mizoguchi is considered a feminist in Japan, although the standards are different and most Americans would probably not consider "Sansho the Bailiff" a feminist film.

It is nice to see this important film get the Criterion treatment. Along with the usual pristine transfer and updated subtitles, a translated version of Ogai Mori's 1915 "Sansho Dayu," the story that inspired "Sansho the Bailiff," is also included.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heartrending, Hauntingly Beautiful, Unforgettable March 8, 2005
Format:VHS Tape
Well, what can I say that hasn't already been said by the other reviewers?

I first saw this overwhelming masterpiece when I was ten (it was part of a Japanese film festival on my local PBS station decades ago). Even at my callow age, I was utterly floored by the power and beauty of Sansho. It was so expertly constructed that I could remember almost every scene twenty years later--particularly the scene where [...] disappears beneath the water in an act of self-sacrifice. It was so emotionally shattering and hauntingly beautiful that I never forgot it. At long last, when I was middle aged, Sansho appeared at my local art film theater and I went to see if it was as good as I remembered. It wasn't. It was even better! My memory hadn't exaggerated it. Sansho is a supreme work of cinematic art.

I suppose I could bore you with breathless descriptions of Mizoguchi's unsurpassed mastery of the camera, his amazing use of long takes and panoramic views, his Shakespearean humanism, his heartfelt sympathy for the downtrodden (particularly women), his elementally powerful yet intellectually sophisticated stories, his paradoxical combination of devastating intensity and Olympian detachment, etc. etc. But instead I will simply say: You must see this great, great work of art at least once before you die.

P.S. I have to join everyone else here in begging, pleading with Criterion or some other reputable company to PLEASE issue a restored version of this masterpiece on DVD soon! It's a crime that we don't have one yet.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So great, so beautiful! August 14, 2006
Format:VHS Tape
"Sansho Dayu" is so great and so beautiful. It is one of my very favorite films.

First of all, thank you so much, Andrew (reviewer below), for letting us know about the truly excellent Films Sans Frontieres DVD edition (which also comes with a beautiful DVD of Mizoguchi's superb film "Crucified Lovers"). I got so tired of waiting for Criterion to put out a DVD of this film that I went ahead and ordered the two-disc set from XploitedCinema and was not disappointed by the quality. I have now given away my lousy Home Vision VHS tape. Until Criterion steps up, the Films Sans Frontieres edition is definitely the one to own!

Second of all, even though the label says Region-Two PAL, I am pretty sure that the Films Sans Frontiere DVDs are actually REGION-FREE NTSC discs, because I can play them on my Region-One NTSC player without any problem at all. So I don't think Americans will need a Multi-Region player to watch these fine films. I bet they will play just fine on their standard Region-One DVD players.

Third of all, I just want to approve what everybody else has said about how great this film is. It is a truly beautiful experience that will shatter your heart. There is nobody like Mizoguchi and no film like "Sansho Dayu".

10 stars for the wonderful film, 1.5 stars for the crummy video tape. Instead you should definitely get the French DVDs (with English sub-titles) put out by Films Sans Frontieres, available in the U.S. from XploitedCinema. You won't regret it!
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars powerful film-making June 23, 2002
By A Customer
Format:VHS Tape
If you are looking for light entertainment, this is not the movie to get. But if you want a film that gives a powerful portrayal of human suffering and the quest for justice, then you might want to consider Sansho the Bailiff. The story has its roots in Japanese folklore. Another reviewer has already given the basic plot, so I won't waste time on that. All I can say is that this movie is both heart-wrenching and breathtakingly beautiful. I first saw this film some 30 years ago and many of the images still stick in my mind. The scene midway through the film where Zushio and his sister Anju pull down a tree branch (a reccurence of an earlier scene) is one of those magical moments in cinema. The overall camerawork in this movie is second to none. Note how Mizoguchi will sometimes have the camera zoom out or pan away from highly emotional scenes. A lesser director would probably zoom "in" to exploit the situation. It's as though Mizoguchi doesn't want us to become too emotionally attached. Perhaps he is telling us that suffering, as much as we may abhore it, is just a part of this transient life. Whether you agree with my interpretation is not important. This film can work for moviegoers on many levels. Just be prepared for a highly-charged experience, if you rent or buy this video.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Stunning Retelling Of A Traditional Folk Tale!
A photoplay version of an ancient folk tale from when commercial slavery was an important contributor to regional Japanese economies (the so-called "Dark Ages" of some 1,200 years... Read more
Published 13 days ago by William F. Flanigan Jr.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Excellent and entertaining movie.
Published 13 days ago by Glenn
5.0 out of 5 stars Kenji Mizoguchi's Highly Enlightening Rumination on the True Value of...
With the hundred's of new Films released each Year - and the Tens of thousands available on DVD and Cable TV etc. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Book & Music thief, from HI
3.0 out of 5 stars The main character's development is just too unrealistic
This movie is rated higher than any other Japanese movie on Amazon, but during and after watching it I could not help but feel deceived because instead of the development of the... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Vladimir Antimonov
5.0 out of 5 stars Comments on a truly "blind" purchase
Found this blu in a small shop in MD., on a Criterion shelf with but a few titles. New: $16! Had never heard of title nor director, but it being an "inexpensive" (! Read more
Published 10 months ago by Jrum C.
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Japanese in viewpoint
This director is not afraid of the dark side of a story. Very sad, gets sadder as it progresses. Also rather beautiful.
Published 16 months ago by Chai Latte fan
5.0 out of 5 stars (4.5 Stars) "Sansho the Bailiff" is on top of your want list, because...
A Nikkatsu silent film star turned director, Kenji Mizoguchi similar to Japanese filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, having directed many films and in his 86-film... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Dennis A. Amith (kndy)
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent film from Japan
First, let me say that this Blu-Ray from Criterion is a flawless, beautiful remastered print. The black and white photography is crisp, sharp and brilliant. Read more
Published 19 months ago by Jim Tarleton
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic Japanese film from 1954
The product was much more than I anticipated, which was a disc. Instead I received a book and disc, with a lot of information which enhanced my viewing, encased in a lovely... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Joan Nicholson
5.0 out of 5 stars On My Top 15 List of All Time Great Movies
Picture this scene: A lord from the Imperial Dynasty arrives at Sansho the Bailiff's huge estate. He is pleased that the slave owner Sansho is forcing the correct amount of taxes... Read more
Published 19 months ago by Gerard D. Launay
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