Classic Cinema Tuesday: Sansho the Bailiff

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Mizoguchi isn’t really a director that I am very familiar with. I have heard of Ugestu but have not watched it. I know that he influenced many French New Wave directors. And I know that no one thinks of him any more. Beyond of course diehard Japanese and art house cinema fans. This sums up my knowledge of Mizoguchi. After watching Sansho the Bailiff, I don’t know if I know much more about him or his work.

After a Japanese governor decides to oppose a decree by a corrupt government, he is sent into exile. After some years, his wife and children journey to this remote place to join him. Along the way, the wife trusts someone she shouldn’t and as a result gets sold into slavery… sex slavery. Her two children, one boy and one girl, get sold to Sansho the Bailiff. They are now his slaves. They toil for long hours spinning wool or policing the province. They grow up in terrible conditions, but they never loose hope that they can one day get out. Zushio (the son) incorporates himself into Sansho’s band of ruffians to find a sense of relief from the daily grind. Anju (the daughter) objects to this turn in his outlook. When a sick woman is put out in the woods to die, Anju goads Zushio to escape the camp and take the sick woman with him. Anju decides to distract the ruffians while Zushio runs for his life. Anju is killed in the process. Zushio appeals to a local governor to get some shelter in the name of his exiled father. To his surprise, the local governor gives him an area to rule that includes the area of Sansho the Bailiff. The first decree Zushio makes is to outlaw all decrees that makes Sansho’s business legal (it was incredibly legal before he came to power). Zushio then travels personally to Sansho’s area and jails him for misconduct. He also searches for Anju, unaware that she was killed when he escaped. When he finds out, he decides to let go of his ruling area and journey to find the only person left (his father died in exile) alive of his family. In a climatic moment, Zushio finds his blind and old woman freeing her from her eternal bondage as a sex slave.

To be frank, this movie is incredibly depressing. Only at the end, does any sense of hope really sustains itself for longer than a moment. This movie also seems like it is screaming for a Foreign Language Oscar. Impeccably shot, well acted, and a typically downbeat story is all you need to ever secure that Oscar, and this movie has all three in spades. This is why I can’t quite put my finger on who Mizoguchi is. He doesn’t seem to have the visual flourishes of Kurosawa or the spare storytelling of Ozu. Is this all he is? Is Mizoguchi only good for making depressing sweeping old dramas? I don’t know, but I was quite bored with this effort. It wasn’t that this movie was bad or terribly made. I just felt like I have seen this type of epic before. Maybe I have become jaded in my adult movie viewing life… It’s probably that.

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