Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

The Wikipedia entry for Sansho dayu includes a citation from reviewer Anthony Lane in which he essentially says he saw the film once, thought it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen, but that he was afraid to see it again. I can kind of understand that, although I’ve now sat through it a second time (wonder if Lane’s summoned up the courage yet). Sansho is fucking heavy; in an oeuvre that’s thin on lightness of touch, it’s still weightier than usual. It is also a great film, although probably not one to approach too casually. Zushio and Anju are the children of a Heian-period governor who’s been exiled; years later they and their mother go to join him, but en route she’s kidnapped into prostitution and the two kids are bought by Sansho, who maintains the manor of the Minister of the Right with slave labour. Years pass and they grow up in this slave camp; Anju tries to keep to her father’s teachings but as Zushio comes to adulthood he basically gives into the brutality, until finally a chance to escape offers itself. The opening of the film describes the story as “full of grief”, and it’s not kidding; in keeping with the common Mizoguchi theme of a female character sacrificing herself for the good of another, we get Anju doing just that, but here there’s a sense of the stakes being a little higher than normal as Zushio has to recover his repressed basic goodness and make right the things he’s done wrong himself. Sansho is nothing if not a story of man’s inhumanity to man and one of the harshest depictions of how badly people can treat others when they don’t recognise them as having any value, but it is quite amazing and the ending is fantastically powerful; unless the next three films in the Mizoguchi box do something to change my mind, I think it’s safe to say this is indeed still my favourite Mizoguchi film so far.

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