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Sansho the Bailiff
The Criterion Collection
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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 separated by vicious slave traders. Under the dazzling direction of Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu), this classic Japanese story became one of cinema's greatest masterpieces, a monumental, empathetic expression of human resilience in the face of evil.
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
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As I was explaining Japanese movies to my teenage son, I told him we have our Westerns and the Japanese have their Samurais. This is of the proper era although it really doesn't qualify as a Samurai movie. It is a morality tale that speaks to the importance of mercy by showing us a part of the world where there was no mercy. In making its' point, it gives no quarter. We can argue for different results but we aren't stuck in a world for years in which no one cares; at least no one who can do anything to help.
There are a wide range of emotions on display in "Sansho the Bailiff" which, along with its' sets and costumes are the essential source of the movie's greatness. Kudos to the director, Kenji Mizoguchi and the excellent cast. This is the same director of the classic movie "Ugetsu" and these two movies are reason enough to search out more of his work. His ability to say so much with so little is quite impressive.
Boy, was I knocked out of my recliner chair readily enough as the movie kept progressing to spellbinding and profound proportions.
I found myself truly watching, not only one of the best 10 films ever made, but one of the best, in my estimation, top 2 films ever made, the only comparison I can make being of that with Grand Illusion. The two are equal in superb quality in every possible way.
By the way, I rank as number 3, The Lives of Others.
This film is about how the cruelty of a few destroys the lives of many due to the acquisition and maintenance of unconscionable power: personal, governmental and even, perhaps, worldwide.
The director, Kenji Mizoguchi's (1898-1956) elder sister was given up for adoption when the family encountered hard times. Somewhat later she was sold as a geisha, affecting her brother's, and our director's, weltanschauung profoundly. He was also privy to observing his father's brutal treatment of his mother and sister.
A star of the film, Kinkyo Tanaka, was the first Japanese woman who worked as a film director. She first directed Love Letter in 1953, and she directed five further films as well.
This film is the best depiction of the experience of slavery (both of master and subject) that I am familiar with. It is awesome, it is spellbinding, it is overwhelming. It really has to be viewed in the marvellous Criterion footage of it to be adequatetly described!
Let's remember this great film's watchword: "Without mercy, man is like a beast."
So, my first Japanese films were Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Rashomon - being ranked on the IMDb Top 250. They were great! I immediately became a fan of Japanese cinema. Later I decided to check into a different director, and then I came up with Kenji Mizoguchi. I decided to give Ugetsu a try. When my order came in, I got around to watching it - at the time, I loved it! I thought it was quite an excellent little film. I liked it enough that I decided to check out Sansho the Bailiff, which has a higher rating on IMDb, although sadly not on the Top 250. I actually was more interested to see this one than Ugetsu. So I was excited, I knew I was up for an even bigger treat. It arrived and I couldn't wait to pop it in my DVD player! Once the movie started, I was not disappointed... What an amazing film I thought to myself. It has got to be one of the very best films I've ever seen! It has such a brilliant story and it is well told through to the end - which is such a beautiful ending! It's almost a shame that some people won't even look at films like this, it almost pains me that I can't even get my own mother to sit down and watch it with me, and if you've seen the ending of the film you will understand what I mean... I find that the story is a little similar to Ugetsu, but what is amazing is the big difference they are in terms of quality film-making! Sansho the Bailiff is far better told, more engaging, sharper in direction and pacing, and far more beautiful! I even went back and re-watched Ugetsu and I thought it was an average film in comparison to Sansho the Bailiff! This film even has one of those qualities that it's so perfect, that you can't help but want to watch it over and over! Oh how much I recommend any true fan of cinema to check out Sansho the Bailiff! It is certainly now one my of dearest favorites.
I also would like to state that Criterion is an absolute savior to cinema, it has gathered some amazing films from around the world and places them in DVD collections of film-goers. I'm looking forward to buying more Criterion Collections eventually as soon as I can save up some money, as they can be a little expensive, but they are often worth the price nonetheless! It sure beats half the films that comes out these days...
Anyone who is reading this, definitely give this masterpiece a try! It deserves to be better known by the mainstream film-goers as it possibly can, classics like this shouldn't ever be forgotten! I certainly will be viewing it a few more times by the year is out! Hopefully I can get my mother to watch it with me some day... -_-
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(1954, Japan, 125 min, b/w, English subtitles, Aspect ratio: 4:3, Audio: Mono)
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