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
WHEN AN IDEALISTIC GOVERNOR DISOBEYS THE REIGNING FEUDAL LORD, HE IS CAST INTO EXILE, HIS WIFE AND CHILDREN LEFT TO FEND FOR THEMSELVES AND EVENTUALLY WRENCHED APART BY VICIOUS SLAVE DRIVERS. UNDER KENJI MIZOGUCHIS DAZZLING DIRECTION, THIS CLASSIC JAPANESE STORY BECAME ONE OF CINEMAS GREATEST MASTERPIECES, A MONUMENTAL, EMPATHETIC EXPRESSION OF HUMAN RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF EVIL.