(Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954)
“Without mercy, man is not a human being.”
After directing nearly eighty films within thirty years, Kenji Mizoguchi began receiving the international acclaim he deserved when three late-career works won top prizes at the Venice Film Festival three years in a row. The third and final winner at that particular festival, Sansho the Bailiff, is likely his greatest. Few filmmakers depict human suffering as honestly or as devastatingly as Mizoguchi – particularly the suffering of women whose stories historically remain mostly untold – and his mid-century masterpiece stands as one of the most emotionally shattering cinematic experience of all time.
Adapting the 1915 short story of the same name by author Mori Ogai, Mizoguchi and writers Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda cast the novelist’s historical work in a distinctly post-WWII light despite its feudal-era setting. These jidaigeki films – Japanese period pieces – were gaining traction in the West at the time thanks to the international success of Kurosawa’s Rashômon in 1950, but Sansho the Bailiff is decidedly different than anything Mizoguchi’s contemporaries were grappling with. There’s something delightfully anachronistic in the way the filmmakers introduce the compassionate governor Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) whose exile sets the stage for the drama that unfolds. As Tamaki is stripped of his post and banished for declaring such political sentiments as “all men were created equal,” one gets the sense Mizoguchi may very well be reflecting on the injustices committed by his own country in the Pacific not ten years prior.
What follows is the tragic story of Tamaki’s two children torn from both parents and sold into slavery at a time when Sansho’s opening title card suggests that the Heian period was an era before humankind knew how to be human. It’s a harsh indictment of our entire race, but given the trajectory of Zushio and Anju’s fateful journey to try to find their parents, it’s certainly an accurate one. Mizoguchi fills his film with crushing loss and the utter depravity of all humans, crafting nearly unbearable set pieces that might leave the most stoic of viewers in tears – the children’s mother (Masauji Taira) is forced into a boat as she desperately attempts escape as they wail along the shoreline, the pair of children laboring until they collapse, attempted escapees branded on their foreheads as a reminder of their folly, or an adult Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) sacrificing herself to allow her brother and an ailing fellow slave to escape.
Mizoguchi’s striking aesthetic only serves to highlight these moments of devastation. He, like so many of the greats, favored the long take and captured these sequences through careful staging of his performers and meticulous framing of his camera with the help of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Many of these scenes are achingly beautiful as a result. The two that most readily come to mind are the well-known sequence as Anju wades into the lake where she and we know she’ll never return and when Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) succumbs to the very cruelty that bound him in shackles as he brands the forehead of an elderly slave who got caught trying to escape. In both sequences, Mizoguchi graciously pans away from the sight of either death or torture, but what his camera captures instead if perhaps even more unsettling. As characters fall victim to oppressive acts of violence, Mizoguchi instead seeks to showcase the reactions of those around them. Or, when Anju wades into the water, we never see her submerge, but the rippling that slowly ceases where she presumably goes under is sure to lodge itself into anyone’s memory long after it ends.
Mizoguchi is, of course, no provocateur; these visuals of human cruelty are never meant to merely shock his viewers. But, the picture he paints throughout Sansho the Bailiff is a rather ugly portrait of humankind. The wealthy landowner Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) wields his power to steal the life of those he enslaves, and yet he receives praise from those on high for his efficiency and control of his estate. His cronies lack any semblance of compassion as they would just as easily force young children into servitude as deny the elderly any basic rights even after decades of free labor. And, even a priestess – a symbol of religious morality and justice – reveals her true colors when she betrays Zushio, Anju, and their mother by delivering them to slave traders presumably for a monetary reward. Given the destruction and loss caused by the Second Great War again only a few years prior to the release of Mizoguchi’s film, it seems we still don’t quite know how to act like human beings. The fate of this human race appears bleak indeed.
And yet, the great beauty in Mizoguchi’s film is that his story offers a solution. As the exiled governor taught his son at a young age, “without mercy, man is like a beast,” so too does Mizoguchi remind us that this is the only way to redemption. Zushio may stumble along the way giving up hope, Anju and many others may lose their lives, but in the end it is only when Zushio remembers his father’s words that he may even hope to overcome great evil. This, it seems, is a picture of true humanity. Throughout the film, Mizoguchi utilizes a song written by the children’s separated mother as a recurring motif to drive Zushio and Anju to never abandon hope for reunification. In the song she calls them both by name and ends each line with “Isn’t life torture?” It’s a sorrowful tune, which unfortunately rings too true for many, but it also leads Zushio back to his mother in the end. Life may very well be torture at times, but mercy and compassion hold the key to restoring our kind to its designed, truest state.