The Ancient Folktale
In Sansho the Bailiff, an ancient folktale about the solicitousness of inhumanity in eleventh-century Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi explores the material with distinctly Japanese means. In addition to creating a harmonious purity in theme and style, the film comes alongside a series of post-World War II titles. The director infused with historical parallels. Each of the films (The Life of Oharu and Ugetsu) criticizes the enduring social injustices inflicted by the rulers. Mizoguchi’s works simultaneously sweep political indictments and a deep personal study of emotion and tragedy. In other words, his films are the face of rigid tradition and ruthless authority.
Apart from exploring the subjugation of women, he is different from other Japanese directors of this era. Mizoguchi’s use of narrative stems heavily from Japanese spiritualism and history. Thereby, he brought traditionalism, as well as the jidaigeki genre, to the screen directly from such well-established cultural sources. At its core, the film has the distinction of being the saddest story the medium has ever seen.
Jidaigeki and the Flow of Mizoguchi
Neither the use of imagery nor the reasons why he is not as popular as filmmakers or young Japanese audiences like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi never applies to modern problems. On the other hand, Kurosawa flows easily between modern and traditional stories. Most directors used more of Japan’s broken landscapes as material for post-war commentary after World War II. Unlike other Japanese directors, Mizoguchi sticks to historical fiction. He has always dabbled in contemporary pre-war narratives, unlike most people.
Yet only brave filmmakers like Kobayashi and Kurosawa, including Mizoguchi, saw the potential of jidaigeki in the post-World War II climate. Filmmakers were forced to submit their work to censorship boards during the postwar occupation of Japan. Audiences can penetrate period films subtly, resulting in more penetrating social commentary that goes unnoticed by many censors. It is often shown how incorporating the past into modern conflict smooths a transition between the political and the social.
Sansho the Bailiff and the solicitousness of inhumanity opens on the hillside of a forest. Tamaki, the wife of a kind district administrator, is found with her young son, Zushio. Her younger daughter, Anju, and their servant, going down a difficult road. As a result, the dense undergrowth is reflected throughout the film, which is set in feudal times. It reflects the director’s feeling that humans and nature are sides of the same coin.
The small group must flee for their lives after their husband attracts the wrath of the cruel and exiled Sansho. Throughout the film, Mizoguchi’s compositions seek to observe the rules of classic cinema. He was moving left, right, and forward, indicating going back in time. Diagonals move towards the sharpest corner while upward movements represent hope and downwards represent depression. By moving from top left to bottom right, they descend into a future the characters never expected.
During the night, the wolves howl. They stop for the night to build a rugged shelter from the tree branches. The circle of their little household in flames was a happiness. For the last time, they would never feel it again. An old priest found them and offered them refuge in her nearby house. Finding their destination in the morning, she suggested that a boat trip would significantly reduce the distance.
She told the friendly boatman that a dark figure had sneakily shot behind them in the bushes. Delivery to a boatman is a betrayal. The woman and the maid are captured by the body trafficker. Women were sold into prostitution and children became slaves under the Sansho. He runs a forced labor barbarian prison camp, and the children will spend the next 10 years there. Sansho is an ominous and sadistic man who is surrounded by slave henchmen.
“Zushio, Anju, come back, I need you.”
A kind man who gave his son an amulet representing the Goddess of Mercy. He taught him that all humans are created equal. It is a flashback to the early lives of children captured by their fathers. When Mizoguchi made his film in 1954, one word surely lived on in his mind. He was reflecting his obsession with women’s rights throughout his career. By which, he may be referring to stories and aspects of traditional Japanese totalitarian society. Each person’s role is rigidly defined so that it flows from top to bottom. As the plot unfolds, Zushio and Anju attempt to escape, captivated by the evocative song sung to them by a recent prisoner from their village.
Echoed in the cry of a bird from the lyrics as follows: “Zushio, Anju, come back, I need you.” It is the ghost voice of their mother. The film incorporates mystical summons into a shocking representation of cruelty under Sansho, which causes prisoners to be branded on their foreheads if they try to escape. Sansho’s son, Taro, is the irony of one who disagrees with the practice. When Taro begins to fight back, Zushio begins to identify with Sansho and becomes the tyrant’s surrogate son. He experiences repentance as the film transcends emotion to move towards its final journey.
In the historical retelling of the Mori Ōgai version, children are branded, and Sansho tortures Anju to death. Apart from being less humane, Ōgai’s version of the story is more optimistic, with the ending of Zushio and Tamaki continuing their privileged lives as royalty. Ōgai’s story also does not treat slavery as a human injustice that is passed down through violence.
It is the factor that separates the independent members of Ōgai, who studies German and Scandinavian folklore, treating Zushio and his mother like characters in classical American literature. Ōgai’s version of Sansho the Bailiff represents the solicitousness and inhumanity of a family as a fantasy. Of course, Japanese audiences were more familiar with Ōgai’s version after the release of Mizoguchi, which treated the material as real-life events. Regardless, even with a mystical quality, there is a dire consequence.
The Mizoguchi Version
On the side of the Ōgai version, the Mizoguchi film version considers personality more in dealing with an inhumane slavery system. He tries to remove Ōgai’s lighter and fanciful touches, including the hope for happiness in the bittersweet ending. Working with his writers Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda to develop the story into a melodrama, Mizoguchi shows a ruler who abuses his subjects under the pretext of their authority. Mizoguchi’s treatment does not engage in the idealistic narrative that develops any more. He seeks to express opportunity and cruelty to the contrary. From the very beginning, he asked about why people punish merciful people.
Sansho the Bailiff creates a solicitousness of inhumanity between the vulnerable and the natural, specifically connecting victims of atrocities, often women as well, to bodies of water. For example, the film’s storyline starts with a farewell in the Sea of Japan. Anju commits suicide by entering a calm pool, Tamaki calls her children through the sea breeze, and ends with the last shot of the film, both literally and figuratively. The water metaphor channels a thought through space-time, a time-skip for life and death, and for the future to the past. Each part of the beautiful fairy tale Mizoguchi deals with the ongoing life in the natural world in terms of brief moments of human existence.
The Landscape Painting
Delivered through the painter’s attention to visual style, Mizoguchi frames emotions and themes about people wanting to connect in a symbolic way. He realized the importance of an image even though he left a literary narrative in the film. Hundreds of years old Japanese paintings referenced by Mizoguchi camera.
In addition to imitating the style of fourteenth-century Japanese monochrome painting, using an expanded depth of field, characters often emerge from a distance. For example, a figure in a landscape painting. Mizoguchi fills the frame with compositional details that appear to come from a landscape painting with small figures. Ultimately, the film considers the panoramic view of human experience beyond its boundaries.
The Autobiographical Thrust
Mizoguchi made about 75 films. However, of all, Sansho the Bailiff contains the most autobiographical thrust. Living in poverty, his family put his older sister up for adoption, and his adoptive family sold her as a geisha. His father treated the family brutally, which is why the story of the film resonates so strongly in the director’s mind. It is based on a 500-year old folk tale. It is difficult to say exactly why a shocking story has the power of a movie. Perhaps, the unbearable tragedy that befell this fine family for no apparent reason. However, some humans are born without kindness or compassion, and do with pleasure what others can not do at all.
Sansho the Bailiff, perhaps, is not a film more than a solicitousness of inhumanity or word of mouth. However, Mizoguchi uses Japanese folklore in addition to his film’s theme of human bonding over a wide expanse. It is an important message that relates to the Japanese experience of various historical or national identities in Japan before and after the war. Mizoguchi’s work underscores how human memory and spirit survive through stories such as folklore. In such a sense, Tamaki’s cries for the sake of the children can represent subtle tidings.
The Humanistic Sight
Just like the story of a young slave girl, distance, no matter how far, will not be able to separate the relationship between humans when speaking in a humanistic sense. Mizoguchi’s message may conflict with Japanese society. However, the eternal message of the film lies in how Mizoguchi can bring the spirituality and conscience of the audience into a grand scheme. The greatness of literature and film lies in these paradoxes.
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- Ehrlich, L. (2002). Sansho Dayu. Film Quarterly, 55(3), 70.
- Ingram, R. (2021). Mizoguchi, Kenji. Book Reviews.
- Wei-ting, J. (2013). From different forms of literature to see the Japanese cultural characteristics of each era–Taking” Sansho the bailiff” as an example. Journal of Jiamusi Education Institute, 04.