Sansho The Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)

More miserable, miserable misery from the ol’ misery-monger Mizoguchi. I never like his movies, then I keep hearing they’re masterpieces so I watch another. This one and Ugetsu are universally acclaimed, and while I liked ’em better than Street of Shame and Life of Oharu, I can’t say I really liked ’em. So, laying off the Mizoguchi for a while after this.

Isn’t life torture? Sister Ky├┤ko Kagawa was big-time, starring in movies for Akira Kurosawa and Mikio Naruse. Her mom played the wife in Equinox Flower.

Near Fukuoka in south of Japan in the 1100’s, this government guy who we never see is unpopular with the higher-ups because he actually wants to help people, so he’s banished to the other side of the country. His wife Tamaki packs up the kids (Zushio and his little sister Anju) to follow, and together they set off on a wonderful adventure! No just kidding, after the kids are kidnapped and sold into slavery, the wife becomes a prostitute, eventually goes blind and never sees her husband or daughter again.

Tha Bailiff:

Mostly focuses on the son Zushio. As a boy he learns his dad’s humanistic ways, but in the slave camp he gives in to authority, becoming a tormentor of his fellow slaves under the rule of Spiky-bearded badman Sansho. Finally he repents, takes a chance to escape (stays with ex-slave Taro, now a priest, who used to be in Zushio’s position), promising he’d be back for his sister. Z goes to Kyoto to appeal to the law, finds sympathy among men who knew his father, and they make Z a governor. He goes down and challenges Sanso’s authority, ordering all slaves freed. When Z says, “My mother and sister will be delighted. Now I can make a happy life for them,” those of us who’ve seen other Mizoguchi movies know what’s coming… he discovers his sister has drowned herself rather than face torture by the guards asking where her brother had gone (as if he’d even told her). Meanwhile mom has been living blind by the sea for years, her song “Isn’t Life Torture” about her kidnapped children spreading throughout the land, so now, having been fired from his post for trying to be nice to people, he manages to track her down and they hug each other and cry.

Zushio and the mad monk:


Movie jumps back and forth in time, pretty unusual. The music, hailed on the DVD commentary for being authentic, is either tuneless twanging on a single guitar string or tuneless piercing flute.

Related posts