Sanshô Dayû (1954) (aka Sansho The Bailiff)
Kenji Mizoguchi

“Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness. “


Gilbert Adair’s legendary quote about Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954) runs thus: “Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films for whose sake the cinema exists…”. Nor just Mr. Adair, but the whole world unanimously hails the film as the director’s masterpiece and a landmark film in cinema history. Having missed the retrospective of the director at Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFES) early last year and having been swept away by Ugetsu (1953), I was indeed eager to see Sansho.  Although not as subconsciously affecting and mentally agitating as Ugetsu, Sansho is a film that nevertheless grows with time.

sansho_the_bailiff_2Sansho the Bailiff cuts back to the last millennium to tell the tale of Zushio and Anju, children of a deposed governor whose only mistake was compassion towards his subjects. With the governor forced into exile, the children and their mother have to make their way into the neighbouring country, along with their faithful maid. But it is fate that decides their course and they find themselves separated into and by islands in no time. Mother is traded as a courtesan and the children sold as slaves to a rich man named Sansho. Years pass by as the kids assume a new identity. Zushio seems be moving closer to Sansho’s principles than his fathers’, mirroring Sansho’s son who refuses to take up his father’s job and becomes a monk. The only hope for his redemption lies in his sister’s faith in better times and in his own memory of the past.

Mizoguchi weaves his tale on a hypothesis about political power –an over-simplified statement that people in power can not possibly show compassion and those who do, would not remain in power any more. Sansho the Bailiff thrives on its characters’ answerability in to the political hierarchy.  Mizoguchi plays around with the permutations offered by power, compassion and responsibility to system and to self. Zushio’s father had the political power and the will to show mercy. He goes against the rules and hence gets deposed. The merciless Sansho, his mirror image, has the power and sticks to the rules. Sansho’s son Taro, on the other hand, is a compassionate individual who refuses to follow the rules and be the successor to his father. Zushio eventually assumes power in order to succeed his father (as foreseen by Mizoguchi’s mise en scène) and deliberately do good. The slaves have the compassion but not the power. Zushio’s father’s lesson about mercy passes from one person to another – From him, to Zushio, to Taro, to Anju, and back to Zushio – like a relay baton, but seems to get lost amidst the drunken revelry of the freed slaves.

Watching Sansho the Bailiff, I was continually reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s wonderful Barry Lyndon (1975). When Kubrick chose, or rather had manufactured, the extremely wide angle lens for his film, what he had obtained wasn’t just a solution to a technical constraint but a conscious stylistic decision. Kubrick apparently wanted to shoot a lot of scenes under exceedingly low lighting conditions for which he supposedly ordered the f/0.7 Zeiss lens. The drawbacks (or were they?!) were that the focus was too shallow and the camera movement terribly limited. But it is highly unlikely that Kubrick, the perfectionist director and the professional photographer that he was, had not foreseen the limitations or thought about the possibilities. Kubrick converts what could have been an ambitious failure into yet another exploration of the filmic medium using these very “restrictions”.

Barry Lyndon is completely devoid of those “satanic” tracking shots that Kubrick is so fond of. In fact, there is hardly any camera movement, apart from the three trademark scenes of “suspended Kubrickian madness” – the hand held shots. This “decision” of Kubrick effectively locks Barry on to the screen.  He is robbed of lateral motion or that metaphorical freedom, if you please. Moreover, the shallow focus that the lens provides gives these candlelit images a painting like two-dimensionality, further restricting lateral and perpendicular movement and sealing Barry’s fate (and refusing emotional depth for the audience). For a film that is all about fate, chance and free will, Kubrick’s decision is remarkable. He narrates the whole film in the past tense, in a way that determines Barry’s destiny with prior knowledge of the denouement of his life. In essence, what Kubrick conjures up is a dateless fable, purely cinematic, that would not transform whatsoever with the passage of time.

sansho_the_bailiff_1Mizoguchi, technically handicapped in comparison to Kubrick, gloriously achieves the same effect and, more importantly, in a decidedly “Japanese” fashion. As clarified in the opening quote (“This tale is set during the late Heian period an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings. It has been retold by the people for centuries and it is treasured today as one of the world’s great folk tales, full of grief.”), Mizoguchi, too, proclaims that the story is of the past – over and done with, its outcome fixed. Again, within the film he furnishes detail using direct flashbacks or visual fragments from the past. Contrary to Kubrick’s motionlessness, Mizoguchi’s camera tracks, pans and rises in a spectacular fashion (the shot in the manor after the slaves over is strangely reminiscent of The Killing (1956)). Watching Sansho the Bailiff is like reading an ancient scroll – both visually and conceptually – which is as much native as Barry Lyndon is, with all its mythical, cultural and historical elements intact.

In resonance with the above practice, Mizoguchi compiles his mise-en-scene such that it constantly points to the inevitability of fate and carries a sense of foresight within itself. Like the “planar preordination” of Lyndon, Mizoguchi frames his characters regularly between parallel wooden structures – fences, trees and pillars – and essentially, “defines” their state.  As if forcing his characters into the vicious circle that comes ready with slave trade, Mizoguchi seldom allows them latitude. Throughout the film, Mizoguchi seems to determine as to where the characters will end up, with one notable exception. The scene where the kids are separated from their mother is a powerhouse no matter how often you watch it. As we witness the boat drift away, we can clearly notice the absence of a horizon, – as in Ugetsu – perhaps the only time where the future of a character is left open by the director, albeit for a short time.

For most part, Sansho is a cruel film. The very title of the film is based on the name of the villain and not Zushio. It presents hope neither for its characters nor its audience. In the poignant final scene, as mother and son reunite, Mizoguchi’s camera pulls away dwarfing them in comparison to the landscape that is as serene and pacific as it was during the beginning of the entire ordeal. It is as if this majestic nature is completely indifferent to the ephemeral travails and triumphs of human beings. What takes a lifetime for the ant-like characters is nothing more than a fleeting instant for nature, which continues to concoct its own tragedies. Often, we see barren and crooked trees taking over the characters in the frame almost in an expressionistic manner. True that nature regularly comments upon their situation but it never does anything to alter it (“Even children as young as you are sold and bought, treated like animals and nobody questions it”, says a character).

sansho_the_bailiff_3The only hope that Mizoguchi presents in the film is by situating the tale in the past – by providing an apparent relief that all the pain and suffering is over and humanity has been discovered (“…an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.”). But reading the opening quote once more, one can feel a strong vein of sarcasm running through. Is Mizoguchi decidedly making it a period drama? Or is there something more “present” to the tale? To clarify my doubts, I looked up the internet about the situation in post-war Japan. Not very surprisingly, I discovered that there indeed were atrocities committed by the occupying forces in the country during the post-war period and also a foundation known as  Recreation and Amusement Association that isn’t much different from the Geisha-slave system that Sansho talks about, which. Of course, I can’t say with conviction that Mizoguchi had contemporary politics of Japan in mind while making this film, but similarities are glaring. As the lady at the weaving mill quotes, “l can’t rest unless I die. What a horrible world! We’re not human beings. Why does the rest of the world turn its back on us?”. Sansho’s is indeed a cold world.