Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954) concerns the cruel misfortune befalling the wife and children of a humane exiled provincial governor in ancient feudal Japan.
Water features strongly in the film. Mizo was never one to blatantly point up symbolism- he was an undemonstrative master like Renoir (who also deserves more appreciation nowadays) but here it’s involved with separation, beauty, purity, self-sacrifice, danger, aching longing, continuity, and at the end the eternal. The film certainly takes on a spiritual dimension, going to the wider universe beyond its tale, rather like Ugetsu’s final shot, but here at the perfect ending place, the sea. Water is counterpointed by fire in the film, male is balanced with female.
Few if any films can match the feeling for the beauty of nature, the mix of painterly eye, captivating silvery luminosity (even accompanied by a sense of sinister foreboding). The great cinematographer Miyagawa does a magnificent job. Mizo trusted his cinematographers and presumably his own sense of shot set-up, and what he wanted, without recourse to the viewfinder. He usually tended to give actors/actresses, designers and loyal screenwriter Yoda a very much harder time by all accounts. He was a stickler for historical authenticity. Mizo is renowned for serene fluid camera moves (masterly yet unobtrusive tracking and crane shots area trademark) but equally he knew when stillness was required. You see that in the central, heart-rending scene i’ll call Anju’s ripples. There’s more impact in her few ripples than a Hollywood tidal wave. Now which philosopher-critic was it who likened Mizo to a circle?
Sansho was the third consecutive Mizo film to win a major prize at Venice (the Silver Lion, like Ugetsu, whereas The Life of Oharu won the international prize) the same vintage year as Seven Samurai, La Strada and On the Waterfront- all beaten by a now forgotten version of Romeo + Juliet! Mizo was an extremely driven, competitive director. It was the success of Kurosawa’s Rashomon at Venice in 1951 that spurred him on to the heights of his string of late masterpieces. A pity international recognition came so late for him. but his epitaph, quite rightly, carries the words “the world’s greatest film director.”
I don’t think any film matches Sansho’s sense of the aching pain of family separation, of longing to be reunited. Mizo was often strong on issues of identity. The film makes striking use of sounds and song, carried and echoing across time and space. It’s a film full of compassion and humanity, which balances cruelty and suffering with love. It has clear links with Mizo’s own life; the main female characters, sister (Kyoko Kagawa) and mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) are paragons like Mizo’s own mother and sister. Mizo’s beloved mother died in his teens and there may be something of his own yearning in Zushio’s search. On the other hand, Mizo thought none too highly of his dad whereas in the film the father is also a paragon of virtue and wisdom to be guarded and passed on. But then, the tyrant Sansho himself may stand for the father Mizo despised as ripe (or rotten) for overthrow.
Mizo aimed very high, and often behaved tyrannically on set but although something of an aesthete his films are not mannered or pretentious. He aimed for balance between realism and heightened emotion, liked to give discreet dignity and distance to emotions without milking effects with simplistic manipulation. Melodrama in his hands can reach a sublime level of refinement. He avoids self-serving diversions that will harm the narrative. There is an underlying integrity to each scene and the film as a whole. He has his own distinct style without fitting so neatly the auteur model as say Ozu and Bresson. Perhaps that partly accounts for his relative neglect?
Women, and their suffering in an oppressive patriarchal world, are often central in his films. Here the main character may be Zushio and the title character also male, but my feelings go out more for sister Anju. I find the actress Kyoko Kagawa adorable.
The film’s politics support family unity and an idealised patriarchal wisdom- in competition with a brutal version of male power- but these are hardly unique to the Right. Instead Mizo supports the overthrow of tyranny and the revolt by the enslaved and again his sympathies are with the underdogs and disposessed, even if here the main characters are from more noble lineage than often the case in his films. He was consistently opposed to injustice, as recognised by the leftist Yoda, and in the film gives Sansho a tougher fate than does the novella by Ogai, though without resorting to vengeful sadism. Mizo was often authoritarian, petulant, self-centred and even abusive, and for all his concentration on the suffering of women he was very far from saint-like in his own dealings with them. Yet the humane qualities that shine through films like Sansho the Bailiff are clearly genuine. The power of the wonderful ending, often described as transcendental, may also be partly indebted to the Buddhism Mizo developed late in life. Sansho has been picked by one organisation among the top 100 spiritual films, but the Vatican missed it and Mizo out of their 45 recommendations i notice. He died of leukemia two years later in 1956, at the age of 58.
Some experience the film as too fraught with harrowing suffering, and consider it pessimistic. For me it finds a poignant balance between suffering and beauty, cruelty and love, imprisonment and freedom, pain and redemption, loss and comfort.
There’s a useful book on the film by Dudley Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh as part of the BFI classics series. A recent book on Mizoguchi by Mark le Fanu rates Sansho his very best, and praises it accordingly. I would strongly recommend David Bordwell’s book Figures Traced in Light, which covers in some detail Mizo’s filming methods and mastery of staging. Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema, by Tadao Sato is also well worth reading.
I consider Sansho the Bailiff the exquisite peak of cinema, and i love and cherish it.
This was a great read, thanks a lot Kenji. I’ve now see 4 of Mizoguchi’s films, Oharo, Lady from Musoshino, Ugetsu, and of course Sansho. I completely agree that Sansho the Bailiff is one of the great peaks of cinema. Its perfect in every way, from the way that the film is structured and paced-which one never conciously notices, and the authenticity of the period it is evoking, the dignity in which it is shot, and the authenticity of the emotions that this film stirs inside you.
I’ve got the two criterions and I have the BFI discs and I’ve watched those. I also have the 47 Ronin from hong kong, and I’ve also picked up the Masters of Cinema releases and am about to get the eclipse set. I think that Ugetsu has a reputation that is perhaps greater than its own qualities, and thus I was slightly disappointed by it, but Life of Oharo and Sansho the Bailiff both floored me and I am looking forward to seeing more from this great master.
Also, thanks a lot for listing the books at the end, I am particularly interested in Bordwell’s book, and I think I might pick that one up.
Ah, thanks for the kind words,a nd so glad you’re a fan too. Bordwell is a superb writer and analyst of films. He rates Mizo and Ozu tops. I love the central section of Ugetsu at Lady Wakasa’s mansion, but certainly prefer Sansho.The Life of Oharu keeps growing with each viewing- first time i’d wanted a bit more of the beautiful spaces of nature as in Sansho but it’s still very rewarding. Kinuyo Tanaka as Oharu is superb and shows she still has spirit even after all her misfortunes- that some find a bit relentless. Mizo’s women are certainly not all self-sacrificing angels and shrinki ng violets, they’re a mix, though they often do have in common oppression in a patriarchal society. I like Lady of Musashino quite a lot, for its lyrical moments and environmental message of sorts. There’s an interesting expressionistic scene in the storm that reminds me of the Indian film Cloud-Capped Star by Ritwik Ghatak which is quite Mizoguchian with its self- sacrificing heroine.
I’ve not seen any duds by Mizo. Story of the Late Chrysanthemums is a great masterpiece, with some astonishing camerawork and lighting effects. Tales of the Taira Clan hits all the right buttons with me, a personal favourite, with beautiful colours and lots of historical colour, underrated i’d say. Miss Oyu is a lovely little gem that may bring to mind Murnau’s Sunrise at times, especially the end. Loyal 47 Ronin may be too slow for many but is an extraordinary spatial exploration, within a would-be militaristic wartime Samurai film! Well, they all have something to offer, but i’ve still quite a few to see of the 31 films that exist (as you’ll know, most are lost, mainly the silents)
wow! what a great review of a masterpiece!
Still one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen. I watch it again, and again and it never dulls, it strikes me just as powerfully now as it did the first time I saw it. You know how I know this is one of the greatest films ever made? Just looking at that screenshot, or more accurately thinking about that scene, makes me tear up, that’s true of maybe two, or three films.
Watched this last night for the first time (from your suggestion in another thread Kenji), and my god. It’s beautiful.
I’ve never been so aware of and entranced by ‘balance’ in any film. I do have a question though. Been doing some reading and a lot is made about the female/male, movement/stillness and outer calm/inner fire, and here water/fire. Do you have any thoughts about the thematic balance of human nature vs. humanity? I’m thinking particularly about Zushio’s liberation of the slaves and the resulting drunken celebration/razing of Sasho’s house. When you said the film’s politics support family unity and an idealized patriarchal wisdom, I couldn’t help but think of the balance to that as presented in the film. Seems to me, though they find solace in their reunion, Zushio and his mother suffered greatly for their piety. They are far from whole, and I think this says something about the necessary balance one finds when individual humanity is inevitably met with a world that runs on human nature. And it’s not to say one rules over the other, but that one cannot exist with the other. Any thoughts?
This was my first Mizo.
Sansho opened the door to this great director for me, I’ll never stop watching it now.
Well Dant, sorry i didn’t see your reply earlier- must have been when my internet was off. Well, i think human nature is a mix- we’re all different products of our genes and environment, nature and nurture. It may be Mizo was quite pessimistic about human nature, he did sound off pretty cynically, there’s plenty of suffering in his films as a result of social and personal injustice, but there’s also surely an optimism in the very fact he often strives for change, believes in something better too. He isn’t willing to accept the status quo with some Zen-like calm or embittered resignation. He aimed for heightened emotion, even if often viewed from a distance, not overloaded with close-ups and very refined; he’s not an understated wise observer like Ozu, whom he respected (Naruse less so, perhaps cos he thought Naruse’s outlook too limited or limiting?). Not that i like the competitive comparisons that so often happen in discussion on top Japanese directors. His films often have an overbearing tyrannical male- here it’s Sansho, whereas the father is unusually idealised (absent but present), and Mizo was very influenced by his own upbringing and his views of his mother and sister compared with his father.
Story of the Late Chrysanthemums is seen by some critics/writers (eg Darrell Davis) as promoting the family- standing as Japan itself- under the militaristic right-wing rule of 1939, whereas i think that’s to lack feeling for the suffering and self-sacrifice of the wet nurse, and to ignore the main thrust of Mizo’s films against the oppression of women. In that film the son regains his (rightful?) place in the theatrical family but it’s at an obvious cost; he’s bettered himself for sure, with loyal female support, but we’re hardly encouraged to take a positive view of the parents. Far from it.
Back to Sansho: I don’t think the ending is unbearably pessimistic- the reunion is too important and long sought to be seen as completely outweighed by all that’s happened. But even the reunion brings up a mix of emotions, such as over Anju.
I think the film has a wonderful feeling for nature and beauty, and the elements, as does Tarkovsky, who admired Mizo as a soaring soul.
Sansho was my first Mizo too, Cinesnag- a good or bad starting point, i’m not sure (would it be better to work up to the peak?), but it made me a committed fan.
I think the ending of this film could be the most beautiful ever made. Not to mention the encounter.
Just to point it out, the first Mizoguchi I saw was Ugetsu, his most famous.
Ah i got our film soc in Wales to show Ugetsu in the 90s. The Life of Oharu was my second, as part of the BBC 100 selection on TV to celebrate the centenary of cinema; that was when they still tried to serve international cinephiles, before the dumbing down. Channel 4, noble people, showed Sansho in about 93. If memory serves, Bordwell picked Sansho in his top 10 for Sight and Sound, as did Bertolucci.
What can I say or add but.. you know your Mizoguchi like nobody else at Auteurs— without Mizoguchi at the center of film canon has become unthinkable—he may well be our Shakespeare. and as more and more of his massive output becomes available, I predict that OUR CINEMATIC SHAKESPEARE may well become a mantra for international CINEMAH AS WE KNOW IT. Keep the excellent info on Mizoguchi coming—I look for it every day.
great post kenji, i’ve come to really love mizoguchi as of late.
thanks for this post. i’ve yet to see any of mizoguchi’s films but it looks like that is about to change. thanks to you.
Well, i’m really delighted you’re feeling so positive about Mizo and the canon, Bobby! And i’m grateful for the kind words here generally
I think you and I through my correction have come to a solid serious consensus that may help Mizo get where he should be in the canon—soon I think we’ll both be able to say to the film community I told you so and may be no one will argue with us 5-10 years from now. I think Mizo is as Shakespearean and as Morzartean as it gets: diverse, profound, sublime. Need I say more. Congrats, Kenji, you’re getting very impressive hits on your 2 Mizo threads—now I expect you to help me find the rest of Mizo DVD’s—I’ll buy them if they have English, French, German, or Spanish subtitles—if print is extraordinary, I’ll accept them without any subtitles. Help me out if you can. Vindication always comes to the persistent if they keep their heads on. You have!
So glad you’re with me on the mission. Vindication always comes to the pesistent if they keep their heads on, As Charles I (in England) kept saying in 1648.
Kenji you are worse than I am when I see something that doesn’t make real sense—I was groggy from no sleep and have no idea what I meant other than: persistence is always rewarded, a cliche but like all cliches, it contains some truth.
Mizoguchi was the genius, without a doubt, but there’s a thing related to him I really can’t bear, but really.
The fact that when I read his filmography I see at least 50 films are lost in time like tears in the rain.
I’m another latecomer – just by chance, I saw Sansho for the first time this past weekend, and was staggered. I adore/admire Citizen Kane in its every aspect, and never had a problem with its hegemony in the Best Of’s – but it’s patently clear that Sansho the Bailiff outstrips Kane in every respect; and even that this is a film that – all other things being equal – Welles could never have made. This film is broader, braver…it’s inventive and profound in a preternatural way. It’s got the equipoise of one of those boulders set in delicate-looking balance by ages of time and erosion: it’s as if, like a colossal sculpture, the supports of movie production were perched under this thing while it was underway, and then removed to give it that illusion of graceful equipoise.
A few things which struck me: firstly, that the film is filled with screaming and rending shrieks without abandon. There isn’t another such a manifestly high-aesthetic film with such an untidy edge of inconsolable human suffering. By “braver” than Kane I meant in part that the romantic turn of nostalgia available even for the man who has spurned everything good has no place in Sansho. Even if these demonstrations of extreme pain had occurred in only a few scenes (it occurs in more than a few)—I don’t know if I’ve ever heard such abject, all-out screaming and weeping in a film. Did Klimov do such a thing in Come and See? I can’t even remember…
The hysterical pitch in Zushio’s voice, when as Governor of Tango he announces to the slaves that they’re freed, almost brought me to tears.
The scene in the whorehouse where Zushio is searching for his mother under her work pseudonym ends with the prostitutes laughing at him – and there is one who cackles, teeth flashing under a white mask of makeup; and this one scene itself contains a hard truth of the vulgar, stupid, mocking force of this life—without ever making a grand explicit point of it.
This film – like Ugetsu – seems to take the travel of people on foot for its dynamic principle. The camera doesn’t outpace the walker or autonomously demonstrate its own technical possibilities of panning or tracking (while the vertical is augmented only occasionally via the crane). The lack of technical didacticism matches the lack of such in the theme and acting perfectly…
On a new forum thread “oh the humanity” i cited Sansho the Bailiff as a prime example, with Zushio who’s become cruel as his slavemaster rediscovering his humanity on remembering with Anju the moment when they fell together from the branch of a tree. Repeating what i said on that thread; put the father’s message on mercy (without which humans are like wild beasts) together with the Mizoguchi quote on his auteurs homepage and it’s easy to see why there’s such a heady mix of powerful emotions here
Great appreciative comments, Witkcacy, music to my ears
The aching longing.
“You must put the odor of the human body into images…describe for me the implacable, the egoistic, the sensual, the cruel…there are nothing but disgusting people in this world"
The quote i mentioned- i missed the 30 minute edit- and perhaps that’s why the title of the film is Sansho the Bailiff not Anju and Zushio. But as i’ve said, i don’t see it as a pessimistic or cynical film, far from it.
sorry, i did a triple post, had to fill, didn’t want to take up so much space on my own
I agree that Mizoguchi is not being overly cynical or pessimistic, but definitely wanted to express the tragic determination of mankind, and the film does therefore bare similarities with selected works by Shakespeare or Sophokles. It may also be his most ambitious and personal project alongside The Life of Oharu, his frustration about people and human relations after the tragic destiny of his wife find its clearest expression in these two particular works. The suicide scene of Sansho the Bailiff is very honest, and reminds me of Bresson´s effort at the end of Balthazar to depict death in the most beautiful way possible. It´s an interesting point that the film is named after a character who seldomly appears on the screen, and I think that Sansho represents the injustice society is based on, and which restrains people from finding true happiness. It´s impossible for Zushio to reverse injustice after gaining power himself, and Mizoguchi makes it clear that time is working against people when his protagonist reunites with his mother who has meanwhile lost her mind. I must admit that Citizen Kane appears to be rather superficial and emotionally empty when compared to Sansho the Bailiff, and although the camerawork and lighting by Japan´s greatest cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is even more elaborated and elegant than Gregg Toland´s contribution does it appear in a more subtle and natural way in Sansho the Bailiff.
It´s interesting to note that Mizoguchi seldomly seemed to have communicated with his cinematographer, and almost trusted him blindly during the shooting of the scenes. I´m also glad to see that this true masterpiece of world cinema finds some appreciation on this site, it sadly not often the case that modern day viewers are interested in the subtle nuances of a film, and Sansho the Bailiff requires patience and attentiveness in order to unfold its emotional power and extraordinary beauty.
Yes it’s surprising given Mizo’s perfectionism and sometimes biting involvement in other aspects of his films that he gave freer rein to his cinematographers, though the visual aspects of Mizoguchi’s films are unmistakeably his. Miyagawa does a fantastic job here, the lovely silvery lighting, and Mizo had already experimented with dramatic foregrounds and depth of field in the 30s before Toland and Welles, moving onto to a subtler mastery as you say. I tend to prefer the less dramatic Hiroshige prints that allow the contemplative eye to wander, not the ones with striking foregound objects. But it’s also interesting to see in the stills above how Mizo was now mixing up long shots- giving an overview and keeping a discreet distance from emotions- with close-ups, or medium-close shots, according to what suited the situation, whereas earlier in his career he’d stated a strong dislike of close-ups. (see Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, and I’m ordering a copy of Straits of Love and Hate, from 1937, which apparently avoids close-ups like the plague).
Finally just watched this yesterday. Really devastating film. Thanks for mentioning shots ‘aching longing’ and ’Anju’s ripples’ – absolutely two of my favs. I may have liked Ugetsu more simply for personal reasons involving piquant feelings of mystery, dread and surrealism – though Sansho certainly taps into pure, big-time suffering, which any romantic (or former romantic) appreciates…
You noted that Mizoguchi very often focuses his films on the suffering of his female characters (in one way or another) – a while back I had the same realization about Max Ophuls. Virtually every film he made has a female protagonist whose heart is profoundly rended, to the point where I’ve come to directly relate female suffering to Ophuls. So far I’ve only seen Ugetsu and Sansho but I do love Mizoguchi very much. One needn’t see much to realize his power. I have many other films of his directly on hand and am very jazzed to get to them. First I imagine will be The Life of Oharu which I’ve been salivating over for some time now. Osaka Elegy, The Story of Late Chryanthemums, "Street of Shame*, Lady Musashino… and some more. Always known I’d basically be having a love affair with him. Don’t have anything particularly unique to add here, just watched Sansho yesterday and saw this thread. Had to contribute.
Yes thanks, and Max Ophuls was another master of the smooth elegant moving camera, who brought refinement to melodramas too- and another of my favourite directors..
Well, you’ve started with probably his most admired films, Oharu and Chrystahemums may be the next most highly rated, so don’t necessarily expect to love the others as much. On the other hand i’ve yet to see a dud, but before i’ve finished seeing all 31 (i believe) remaining that will surely happen..
For what it’s worth I’d just like to mention that I just watched Sansho The Bailiff for the first time the other day and it blew me away. It’s quite simply one of the finest films I’ve ever seen.