Sansho the Bailiff is the third of three films my Kenji Mizoguchi on the list – as of the moment I have seen Ugestu and will probably be years before I watch The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. He is one of those directors that is very highly regarded by a lot of major critics, but most people outside of Japan will have probably never heard of. Now that I’ve seen a second film of his, I’m beginning to understand more about why he is rated as a director.
I mentioned that, for Ugestu, I felt there was a real handicap for non-Japanese watchers due to there being a reliance on some historical awareness. From the word go, Sancho the Bailiff immediately sets the scene and helps to give greater context into the series of tragedies that we watch unfurl. A noble governor is exiled, his wife kidnapped and sold into sex slavery whilst their two children are sold into regular slavery.
This story is a classical one in Japanese folklore with the central focal points being the siblings sold into slavery. We have some scenes with the mother alone as she tries to escape to find her children… only to have her Achilles tendon cut in punishment so she is no longer able to walk unaided. (I told you this film was tragic, at times it just plain bleak). It’s actually weird, therefore, that this story is named after the man who bought the children as slaves as he doesn’t appear all that much – but I am guessing that’s a relic from the original tale.
The cruelty and tragedy aside, Sansho the Bailiff is a really beautifully shot film with a strong moral core to it. The heroes here are those who wish to abolish slavery, the villains are those who kidnap, buy or mistreat slaves and those who have been sold into slavery or prostitution are so beaten down that their eventual freedom is all the more sweet.
There is a cost though (and it isn’t just the cutting that I mentioned earlier). One of the most affecting scenes involves a woman walking into a lake to commit suicide so that she won’t end up speaking under torture. It’s beautifully shot and it just stays with you, as does the final scene between the reunited mother and son.
Between this and The Phenix City Story it’s probably time for to watch a less tragic 1001 film for the next post. Considering the ending of this film, it isn’t going to be too difficult to find something lighter to watch next time.