Sansho the Bailiff, 1954

In the austere society of ancient Japan, a beloved, altruistic provincial governor defies an order from the general of the reigning feudal lord to provide additional men for the army, and is forced into exile. In his parting words to his young son, he provides a fundamental principle with which to govern his life: “Without mercy, a man is not a human being.” Six years later, the governor’s wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), their children Zushio (Masahiko Kato) and Anju (Keiko Enami), and their governess, travel through the backwoods in search of a boatman for hire who will take them to the remote island of Tsukushi, where the father was exiled. While resting for the evening in the woods, a kind, elderly woman offers them shelter and a warm meal, and assists them in obtaining transportation for their journey. However, her seemingly benevolent intentions prove false, delivering the family into the hands of slave dealers, who quickly sell Tamaki to a brothel on Sado Island, and the children to the farm of a corrupt tax collector, Sansho (Eitaro Shindo). Soon, the children are forced to abandon any hope of reuniting with their parents and returning to their life of privilege, leading a brutal existence of hard labor, starvation, and punitive mutilation. Ten years later, an adult Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) has forgotten the meaning behind his father’s thoughtful words as he exacts the inhumane punishment on other slaves that Sansho’s own son, Taro (Akitake Kono), is unable to perform. One day, Zushio and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) are tasked to dispose of a dying slave, Namiji (Noriko Tachibana), outside the territorial walls of the farm. As the siblings collect branches for a makeshift roof for Namiji, a childhood recollection restores Zushio’s hope for a family reunion, and the siblings plan an escape.

Kenji Mizoguchi strikes a delicate balance between man and environment (as Andrei Tarkovsky’s films also convey), creating a visual composition that is spare and reserved, and achieves an understated grace that reflects the inexorable courage and nobility of the soul. Using high angle overhead crane shots, Mizoguchi extends the linearity of the images, creating a sense of eternity and dimensionality: the opening shot showing the travelers traversing a shallow river bed in traditional kimono and headdress; the indelible image of the family passing through an open field populated with tall, wispy blades of grass; the first glimpse of Sansho Dayu’s fortress; Taro’s departure. The theme of eternity is further manifested through the recurring imagery of water – from Tamaki’s melancholic call to the sea, to Anju’s sacrifice, to the tidal wave that decimated a coastal village – reflecting the timelessness of the moral tale. Sansho the Bailiff is a serene blow to the eyes: a subtly poignant and hauntingly beautiful film on compassion, perseverance, and human dignity.

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