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.

Rise Of The Landing Sun

Rise Of The Landing Sun

When one thinks of people like Steve Irwin (“The Croc Hunter“) and Timothy Treadwell (immortalized in Grizzly Man (2005)), it is invariably about the way they died. Some say they saw it coming all the time while some coldly label them romantic fools. But coming to think of it, they perhaps are the happiest kind of people – dying doing what they wanted all their life.  And the same goes for the little octopus in Okuribito (2008) that struggles to survive on land and dies serenely when discharged into its habitat. Hijacking the Oscar from strongly tipped films Waltz with Bashir (2008, Golden Globe winner) and The Class (2008, Palm D’Or winner), Departures has attempted to turn the eyes of the world from the age old issue of wars into something perhaps equally alarming.

Kicking off from the buzzing city of Tokyo, the film tells us of Daigo Kobayashi (a very physical, Ben Stiller-ish Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who finds himself out of job, his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) who seems to be tolerant to all his bluffs and goof-ups and their life following their decision to move to the countryside. By twist of fate, Daigo lands up as a mortician and what follows is a series of impressive and often funny encounters that he has in his profession. After the first gruesome “project”, he takes bath vigorously to get rid of the stench having done the same to the deceased! However, he still desires to play the cello at defining moments that either shake him up or have him exhilarated, perhaps the only times he truly feels alive.

Although Departures is not entirely a character-driven film, the people in the film exist not because they are entities that shape the plot but because they signify something that is not forced upon them. Director Takita neither shapes his characters to conform to the mechanics of a plot nor does he let them take over the unraveling of the film. He merely chooses or avoids them. He reveals them to highlight disparities, change in attitudes and at times the national mentality. All of them (most importantly) have a past that runs parallel the country’s itself. They all are aware of their destination – both collective and individual. I do hope Mr. Takita makes a film that is set 25 years hence. That would clearly justify the ominous atmosphere that the characters carry with them.

Death doesn’t mean the end, but leaving the present, heading for the next stage. Truly a gateway” says the old man at the funeral house. “Journeys” they are called. Takita punctuates episodes in the film with shots of landscape in motion – trams, cars, rivers and birds – illustrating the significance of commutations, movements and relocations in our lifetime and beyond. These journeys are initiated by the morticians with a grace and precision comparable to a wedding or religious ceremony. I guess humans have a paradoxical tendency towards death – possessing inherent self-destructive properties to move towards it yet a grotesque desire to reanimate the dead and to infuse life into the non-living. Daigo embellishes the corpses, endowing them with elegance never seen during their living days, which almost consoles one with the fact that they have had such a beautiful death despite their ugly lives. In essence, a death that unites everyone – the expired and the living. Takita presents a number of such references to the living, the dead and the living dead throughout Departures.

Like Scorsese’s comic book wonder Bringing Out The Dead (1999), Okuribito is a film of great ironies – ironies that come packaged with the biggest taboo of them all called Death. A destitute gets all the respect and care he never had when he lived. A misanthrope would be called a gentle giant the minute he stops breathing. Okuribito explores all these weirdly funny facets of life (and its absence) through the prism contemporary Japanese culture and the paradigm shift that it is currently experiencing. Take the hilarious scene where Daigo “discovers” that the dead girl is actually a transvestite. When asked what kind of make-up – men’s or women’s – would the parents like their child to have, they ask Daigo to use the female make-up – which they perhaps would never have allowed their son to use. One excavates a host of such observations and Herzogian contradictions which will only be ruined by verbalization.

I was tempted to compare the film with Ozu’s masterwork Tokyo Story (1953) until I realized how unfair and often foolish this comparison would be. There is nothing Ozuvian about the form that Takita employs (the first few shots of the film would confirm that). The film is as removed from Tokyo Story, albeit the striking similarity of content, as modern Japan is from the culture the west associates it with. Unlike Ozu’s films that suggest a larger youth population, Okuribito provides us with sketches of Yamagata that are filled largely with old people and a few “Macdonalized” young ones. Yet, both seem so true to the contemporary state of affairs in the country. This just goes to show how the country itself has transformed through the years and that a comparison of films can be made only from a historical perspective and not a cinematic one.

Japan is standing on the brink of a historical moment now. With a large fraction of its citizens moving out of the income graph and a minuscule youth population struggling to stabilize the pyramid, the country’s economy seems to be in for a major crisis – a crisis that every country has to go through some day. Okuribito’s almost allegorical take on this transmutation of the country’s demography and culture is probably what makes it uniquely Japanese (and perhaps the only reason it is fir for comparison with the “Japanese” Ozu). The film’s excessively melodramatic flavour may turn off purists but why I feel that it succeeds despite (and sometimes because of) its flaws is that Departures plays out as an elegy. A requiem for the death, or rather the departure, of its senior population and the social, cultural and economic norms that are soon to go down with it.


Kakukshi-Toride No San-Akunin (1958) (aka The Hidden Fortress)
Akira Kurosawa

“Get away from me! You stink of dead bodies!”

Hidden FortressJapanese cinematic master Akira Kurosawa has always been a source of inspiration for both contemporary and future film makers. Right from Sergio Leone to Kamal Haasan, every one who has come across his films have been entranced by it. Kakukshi-Toride No San-Akunin (1958), which is considered one of Kurosawa’s finest, apparently inspired George Lucas to script the characters and the narration in the Star Wars franchise based on the two slaves of the film.

Tahei and Matakishi are two slaves who dream of making big business during the war time. They are always fighting and trying to pull each others’ leg. They escape from a concentration camp and stumble upon some pieces of gold and discover that there is more where that came from. They are led by Rokurota Makabe who seems to have all the gold hidden at a secret place. They strike a deal with him wherein they get a share of the gold if they help him smuggle the gold across the heavily guarded border into another country. The gang go through a variety of dangerous situations, every time being saved by Rokurota Makabe. Gradually, they learn that Rokurota Makabe is not a lay man but he is the general of the Akizuki country and is in charge of getting Akizuki’s national treasure and its princess to the right place. The journey not only enlightens the princess about the plight of her subjects but also acts as a medium of settling the differences between the bickering duo.

“Unconventional” doesn’t start to describe this film that refuses to go traditional. Right from the starting conversation that is introduced without an establishing shot (that is reminiscent of the Tarantino age) to the style of narration of the story as viewed my the minor characters of the plot instead of the protagonists, the film breaks the canons of film making one by one with the action and thrill kept intact. Toshiro Mifune is majestic as ever with the right blend of the arrogance and humour. The film was the recipient of the FIPRESCI award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1959.

Kaidan (1964) (aka Kwaidan)
Masaki Kobayashi

“We forgot to write the holy text on his ears”

KwaidanVery few films have come out that are based on mythology of their country of origin. Except for the slew of animations films, there are no mainstream mythological films from India, a country with the richest mythology. Japan, on the other hand is conscious of its heritage and has adapted the same in various forms. Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964) is based on a compilation of ghost stories from Japan and consists of four segments.

The first segment “Black Hair” follows a jobless samurai who has divorced his wife in exchange for a prestigious social position. He repents his decision and decides to return to his wife only to discover that she is dead. The second sequence titled “The Woman Of The Snow” has a young woodcutter witnessing a beautiful female ghost in a snowstorm and is haunted by the vision. Years later he comes to know that his young wife is a human form of the spectre he had seen. The third story “Hoichi, The Earless” tells about the mysterious disappearance at nights of the title character who is a blind monk living in a temple. When the senior monks conclude that it is a work of the spirits of the Heike army which perished near the temples years ago and tries to clear the situation. Things become worse when the discussed plan is not implemented perfectly resulting in the loss of ears of Hoichi. The final segment called “In A Cup Of Tea” involves a samurai who consumes a soul residing in a cup of tea, refuses to respect it and faces the consequences. The film ends in a rounded manner that reflects the structure of the final story.

The film does not frighten the viewer nor is it its intention. Amazing production design reflect the quality of investment of this multi-million project. Almost the whole of the first three stories is shot indoors in fabulous sets that set up the required eerie environment. For its rich visuals and exquisite cinematography in the widescreen, the film won the special jury prises at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965

Yume (1990) (aka Dreams)
Akira Kurosawa

“Yesterday I was trying to complete a self portrait. I just couldn’t get the ear right, so I… cut it off and threw it away.”

YumeThe first thing that strikes everyone about Japanese cinema is the Samurai culture. And the first thing that strikes about Samurai films is Akira Kurosawa. Akira Kurosawa’s later films, however, were not received well even though they were offbeat works such as Dodes’ka-den (1970), Dersu Uzala (1975) and Yume (1990). Yume presents itself as a episodic collection of eight vignettes apparently based on the director’s dreams.

The first dream “Sunshine Through The Rain” presents a kid witnessing the wedding procession of foxes against his mother’s warnings and his subsequent punishment. In the second segment “The Peach Orchard” has a boy witnessing her sister’s dolls (which represent peach orchards) performing a dance and later scolding him for cutting down peach orchards. The next dream “The Blizzard” portrays a few mountaineers trying to scale a peak against all odds posed by the harsh nature. “The Tunnel” sequence is a chilling account of a Japanese army official who meets a dead soldier from his squad who refuses to believe that he is dead. In the “Crows” dream where Martin Scorsese plays Vincent Van Gogh, we are given a tour through the works of Van Gogh. The “Mount Fuji In Red” segment shows a nightmare portrayal of Nuclear explosion. In the seventh dream “The Weeping Demon”, a man meets a demon who explains that a large scale mutation took place that resulted men such as him. In the final dream “Village Of The Watermills”, a man looks at a village that abandoned the use of modern technology and has decided to live in a clean and peaceful environment.

Spectacular imagery and and amazing production design spells class all over. The film, without doubt, provokes mixed reactions from the audience. But it is indisputably, a daring work of art by all measures. Let’s face it. Which other director has the guts to make a picture based on their dream! The film was nominated for the Golden Globe for best foreign film in 1991.