Ugetsu

Cahiers du cinéma no. 95; May 1959.

Ugetsu

In 1959-1960, I wrote several long articles (including this one) at Cahiers du cinéma which won me a certain prestige. Why this sudden effervescence? Because the big names of Cahiers had just moved onto filmmaking. And I was occupying empty chairs.

The most faithful review would perhaps consist of multiplying exclamations, superlatives and metaphors, of speaking of the clarity of crystals and the purity of water. But, at the risk of introducing a tonal rupture between the work and its criticism, we must go further. The very intention of criticism – which, unless it needs to fit in half a page, must put up with the treacheries of analytical convention – is not to go after the work’s essence. While there is such a thing as cinematic evidence, it’s impossible to speak of evidence when it comes to criticism. Gratuitousness and complete relativity alone can be the judges of our seriousness and competence. Yes, there’s no other approach to genius than to miss the forest for the trees.

In addition to platitudes and poetic references, I confess being the victim of another temptation: to take Ugetsu for a Japanese film by Mizoguchi when, in fact, it’s a film by Mizoguchi, comma, Japanese. It’s the nature of masterpieces to surpass the boundaries of collective civilizations – if I can be excused for this barbaric and paradoxical association of words that considers as fact that which can only be virtual – from which they nevertheless emanate. One must be aware of the origins, but also accept finally that they explain nothing. One mustn’t say that only the Japanese could have reached this high – a good joke: with Ugetsu, they have for once equalled the greatest works of the West. Confident about our quantitative superiority when it comes to quality, we tend to push our goodwill too far – perhaps due to snobbism, but especially because it costs us so little, applies as it does to exceptional and unquestionable works. And, through different means, we arrive at almost comparable results. I don’t think I’m getting too far from the subject at hand when I cite the Ray of On Dangerous Ground, the Murnau of Tabu for the shot and scene structure, the Preminger of Bonjour Tristesse for the direction of actors rather than Hiroshige and Hokusai, Kinoshita and Kurosawa, Noh and Kabuki, who are evoked without discrimination – rightly or wrongly, knowingly or not – when it comes to anything Japanese. At the most, we could say – something I wouldn’t take the responsibility for – that it’s a Noh view of Kabuki in the first part, and a Kabuki view of Noh in the second.

What we westerners don’t understand – native symbolism, that is – has no importance whatsoever. What a phrase book can decipher is of no artistic interest and that’s why it’s excellent to see a Mizoguchi without subtitles from time to time – it’s as fascinating as the most fascinating show in the world, that of rushes.

The most important thing is not to understand, but to understand that there’s something to understand and that we don’t understand: the means is the end here, since the ending will always turn out to be banal; it wouldn’t get you too far to understand that beans symbolize death, or anything of that kind. In fact, what’s more serious is that certain subtle connections, deriving from the mutual confrontation of symbols or the confrontation of symbols with what we understand, elude us. I propose a question: can the Japanese understand better than us the amazing scene of Miyagi’s death, which we believe to be based, just like our modern cinema, on action and not on ideas? Is it a westerner who could boast of having better understood the meaning of Man of the West, Ordet, Elena than that of Ugetsu?

Ugetsu greater than Mizoguchi

Come to think of it, is Ugetsu really this clear crystal, this pure gem that I just evoked, dazed by my first contact with the film? It’s possible to think so of The Crucified Lovers, Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, monotonous and more literally-Japanese monogataris. Ugetsu is not a film of pure sensitivity like them, made without apparent effort within an artisanal framework. It’s a work of labour and research. My thesis would be that Ugetsu is greater than Mizoguchi. It’s the most complex film in the world and the simplest at the same time, since Mizoguchi considers the complexity of what he shows with a constantly even distance and objectivity. It’s at once the most accomplished art and a withdrawal from this art. The perfection of imperfection and the imperfection of perfection. The perfect balance, in short. The sublimity of Ugetsu stems from the fact that it contests other films on equal terms and that it reigns over them immediately nonetheless. The frames brim with effects, but it’s up to the viewer to go look for them, and not up to the director to bring them to us on a platter through some expressionist solicitation.

Ugetsu, I repeat, is a film entirely on the margin of the eight-five other films that make up Mizoguchi’s filmography, which goes around in circles to end somewhere near Princess Yang Kwei-Fei. And this is perhaps thanks to the transcendence of chance and constraint. Like all works of old age worthy of that name, Ugetsu is a synthetic work. We know that, with age on his side, the creator ponders the vanity of an endless accumulation of invention, and sets out to seek his calling elsewhere. But beware, it isn’t in the Kamchatka or the halos that he’ll discover this elsewhere: the film would then run the risk of being the product of a pure idea, with no other connection to the physical world than through the channel of a retrospective. I prefer Ugetsu to the second part of Ivan the Terrible, more complete than the first, because the force of a juvenile cinema goes hand in hand there with the nobility of an adult cinema.

If it’s difficult to speak about Ugetsu, it’s because it’s a film, not a book, and a film that could never have been a book. The meaning of Ugetsu is resolutely cinematic, hence monist, as opposed to the fallacious atomism of literary creation. What is the film actually about? The unity of all things, their continuity, their confusion. The point of view of Ugetsu is located on the level of imagination, in the literal sense of the word, and that’s why idea and perception in it are closely related. The present and the past, life and death, real beings and ghosts, failure and success, what difference does it make at the end of the day? None, although we know that only the present has a physical reality, that ghosts don’t exist. The fact remains that we imagine them and that it’s true that we imagine all that we imagine; that only what we imagine is true and sovereign, by the very fact we imagine them: unless, with scientific progress, we discover another form of knowledge overnight. And we don’t have the right to cherry-pick aspects of this fact, since rejecting even one part of it is to admit that we can deny the physical world, that we can reject everything, since there is no priority, whether its source is direct or indirect, in everything that can make up an image1. And it’s this monism in which intelligence can see only contradictions that constitutes the entire being of the film, since we are less able in this film than any other to distinguish form or content.

Akinari is betrayed

Well, let’s talk about it, the content. The film is based on two stories from the collection Ugetsu Monogatari (1776) by Akinari Ueda (1734-1809), the Japanese Mérimée. In fact, compared to Thomas Kurihara’s old, expressionizing film, whose remake it is, Ugetsu doesn’t owe much to Ueda. See for yourself:

In “The House in the Thicket”, a peasant leaves his wife home alone to go sell cloth in the city. War follows; on his way back, he gets robbed, falls sick, wanders away, returns home after seven years and finds his wife there; but he realizes the next day that it was the ghost of his dead wife that received him the previous evening in order to encourage him to persist with his task.

In “The Lust of the White Serpent”, a young intellectual is tempted by a serpent that has assumed a female form. He brings back a precious sword from the enchantress’s solitary house and is interrogated by his family about the matter: he is arrested for theft of the Treasure of God since, obviously, no one knows the enchantress or her house. He is sent to prison only for a few months, having proved that he was victim of a demonic possession. But the Thing redoubles its rage, takes the form of our hero’s wife, kills her, before returning to its ophidian form and being put in a cage.

Mizoguchi has dropped all this melodrama and added a lot of material of his own: faced with the threat of the Shibata army plundering villages and recruiting farmers, Genjuro, a peasant attracted by the profits of pottery, and his brother-in-law Tobei, who dreams of becoming a samurai, leave town with their respective wives, Miyagi and Ohama, to sell pots, vases and tablecloth at the city market. En route, Miyagi and her son turn back to avoid rapist pirates; but she is killed on the way. Finishing his sales, Tobei becomes a samurai and finds Ohama, whom he had abandoned, in a brothel; they start all over again. For his part, Genjuro, suddenly rich, becomes the lover of princess Wakasa, who is simply the ghost of a young girl who couldn’t find love during her life. A bonze reveals the mortal danger he runs and immunizes him against the spirit, with whom he brutally breaks up. Completely impoverished, he comes back home to find Miyagi. But, the following day, he wakes up to the unpleasant surprise that it was Miyagi’s ghost that had received him the day before in order to encourage him to accept his fate, to continue with his task and to raise his son with the help of his sister and his brother-in-law. There are hence important differences between the film and Akinari’s text. Genjuro’s son, his profession as a potter, Wakasa’s human (and no more animal) nature, the secondary couple Tobei-Ohama: these are what Mizoguchi added after having expunged quite a lot.

Wakasa and Miyagi hold hands

Ugetsu shouldn’t be seen, based on its conclusion, as an apology for resignation and for specifically bourgeois values. Mizoguchi never proposes anything: his art is to show us the beauty of a world of extreme simplicity, but this beauty must be renounced in order for it to be grasped; without which we wouldn’t even see it. Just as how God would only be a myth if evil didn’t exist, everyday life would lose all meaning without Wakasa. Man must abandon the humdrum of existence – and this is Mizoguchi’s original sin – which he often does at the price of his life, in order to experience the beauties and dangers of the glory that seduces him, and only then will he be able to truly appreciate the simple life given to him. This is how the curve becomes a straight line. Beauty always has a moral significance, either in its consequences or in itself. Ugetsu is, if I’m allowed this gibe, a successful Run of the Arrow, it’s the onward and the return trip, the addition plus the subtraction. This turn of phrase determines the construction of the film, which narrates the story of two couples; one survives, not without the cruellest wounds; the other perishes (in fact, in the original script, Tobei and Ohama were to kill themselves); the superimposed happy ending upsets the balance of the film, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic; we know since long that Mizoguchi’s universe is one of indifference, and the cruel fate of Tobei and his wife establishes a link with his other films.

Every scene in the film is matched with another one, similar in subject but different in manner: two lance murders; two ghost appearances; two trips to the city; Genjuro turns his mould two times etc. Every movement is responded to by another one in the opposite direction, as in the introduction and the epilogue, the arrival at the market. Every gesture, every movement that the creator puts in place is the formulation of a prejudice, an exercised prerogative about the existence of the universe. The first reflex is to cross arms and do nothing. On the contrary, Mizoguchi goes one step ahead of error and erases it on his way back. By this onward and return movement, he substitutes for a void something that we can consider at least as the presence of a void.

The movement of the artist

Like all synthetic works, Ugetsu is a work marked by domination, the filmmaker’s domination of his material and of himself (hence the abundance of long shots in the depiction of psychology). That is, by self-justification. The works of great men generally champion a way of life which is that of common mortals, while their own is exceptional. Well, Ugetsu establishes a link between the artist and his work. It insists on the humility and the necessity of creation. Genjuro is an artist: his profession as a potter is perhaps the one that resembles that of a filmmaker the most. I don’t think this is an interpretive hallucination: the aesthetic conversation between Genjuro and Wakasa on the secret of beauty have everything a message needs; no doubt that they must be applied to the work of our auteur. Creation, the artist’s as of the peasant, is portrayed as a temptation, but also as the only redeeming temptation in this world where everything is but temptation, since it’s the only noble one. At the outset, every artist is a rebel, a dissenter; but the very fact that he is an artist leads him to discover beauty and his thirst for wealth and fame, which can only be satisfied through a spiritual progress sanctioned by success, turns slowly into a search for beauty and morality. In his essence, the artist is an impure being who, beyond theory and principle, temptations fulfilled and rendered vain, if only thanks to intelligence which is his domain, becomes the purest of all. While everyone, in The Crucified Lovers as much as in Portrait of Madame Yuki, was a prey to the irremediable, in Ugetsu, which is Mizoguchi’s Under Capricorn in a way, an exception among eighty-six films cut from the same cloth, Prospero, pardon me, Genjuro triumphs over the irremediable by accepting it. And, through his evolution, we perceive Mizoguchi’s evolution. We often forget that filmmakers are filmmakers and that the most important problem for them is not racial or social, for the good reason that they have no reason to fear racism at the moment and that almost everyone is guaranteed to anyway find a job that allows them to not die of starvation. The most important problem is that of their existence and their role in society: are they pariahs or beings like others? Is there a chasm between the characters they depict, most often men in the crowd, and themselves? No, the answer is simple, it’s enough to be a maker of objects. But very few films give us this answer, and it’s even rarer that the artist’s life is closely associated with the details that have made this answer possible. After several apprenticeships with the sublime through the conventional, here’s a lightning strike.

What follows is a return to the norm: after such a peak, Mizoguchi will continue to make films like he did before, in a style that isn’t “new style”. And what he sings of here is this perpetual movement of the artist that justifies his vain and relentless labour. Ugetsu is Ugetsu and the critique of Ugetsu. Genius and humility are united once and for all in a perpetual oscillation.

At full speed

Of all Japanese films, of simply all films, Ugetsu is unquestionably the quickest, the most brutally quickest. Just ninety-three minutes for a script so rich that anyone else, Japanese or not, would’ve extended over three hours. In each scene, which is often a single shot, the action is presented at top speed, with strictly minimum editing. The Americans – and God knows how much they’ve tried – could never attain such concision. And Mizoguchi, before as much as after Ugetsu, drew much of his power from an extremely slow tempo. Why this change? Because Masaichi Nagata, in response to the increasing commercial success of his films in Europe and to the reservations that got the too-slow Oharu only a simple Silver Lion at Venice as opposed to a Golden Lion for Kurosawa, decided so. If Ugetsu is a masterpiece, it’s largely due to western influences and not the noblest ones at that. For my part, I don’t see anything wrong with that; and I will not follow these purists who are satisfied only when they can’t understand anything by dint of total esoterism. If we Europeans seek to renew ourselves through contact with the Orient, why shouldn’t the Japanese draw from curious Latin and Anglo-Saxon exoticisms? It’s surely not the first time that a masterpiece has sprung from the meeting of two most dissimilar civilizations. The seeds of this constrained evolution – but voluntary this time around – were already present in the previous Mizoguchis, animated by the same rhythm, no matter that it was slow or fast, which didn’t allow for the superfluity of well-mannered transitions and edits.

It would be ridiculous to think of this constraint as a disadvantage, especially as Mizoguchi, who isn’t mad and, as an aside, whose name we pronounce “Mizogutchi”, has completely annihilated the principle by pushing it to its extreme and extending it to all aspects of the mise en scène. But he couldn’t have thought of it all by himself.

Is it a question of telling us that we are at the countryside? And wham! A shot of the fields, interrupted right away by another insert of a lake, and lake in Japanese means Lake Biwa. A single shot, slightly mobile, shows us the hero and all the potentials of the drama. Thirty seconds after the credits, we know everything, thanks to an expertly concise and elliptical dialogue, which makes characters address each other as “my wife”, “my brother” etc. and describe the character traits of each one in an adjective. And Mizoguchi never stops rushing towards his final goal. A speed that would upset the Japanese as much as the European. All great films purport to show us God’s point of view; we already know that, I invent nothing, but what I didn’t know until now, and which Ugetsu just taught me, is that they are made for an ideal viewer who is more than “in the image” of God, who is God. It feels ten times faster for us, and we need ten viewings to be on equal footing with the film since, alas, the rushes must’ve already been pulped. The effects are conceived to enrapture the artist, or someone in his place, and not the viewer.

 

1I made fun of myself in Up and Down, where I utter this line while getting on the bicycle: a slope of 6 degrees.

[Translator’s Note] Moullet has fun typing out the full title of the film in French, Les Contes de la lune vague après la pluie (“Tales of the hazy moon after rain”), every time he refers to it – a running joke lost in translation. Clearly, he was paid by the word.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Pather Panchali (1955) (aka Song Of The Little Road)
Satyajit Ray
Bengali

“This is my home, too. But look at it. It’s like living in the forest. “

 

Satyajit Ray’s name has become synonymous with quality cinema from the country and his opera prima Pather Panchali, (1955) its prime example. Made under hopeless production situation like many other great films of that period, Pather Panchali has been hailed by critics, filmmakers and cinema lovers across the world as one of the greatest of all times. And what a legacy it has left behind!

pather-panchali-1Based on a book by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Pather Panchali is a series of loosely knit episodes in a poor Brahmin family in rural Bengal. Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a priest who also dabbles in play writing. His wife, Sarbojaya (Karuna Banerjee) manages the household and her two children Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and Apu (Subir Banerjee). There is also their old “aunt” Indir (Chunibala Devi) who loves eating the fruits given to her by Durga. Then there are their neighbours, the well-off Mukherjees, who share a love-hate relationship with their family. Mrs. Mukherjee helps out when Durga falls sick almost as her surrogate mother (as Ray hints early in his mise en scène) and Sarbojaya does the cooking in Mrs. Mukherjee’s daughter’s wedding. It’s a warm and isolated little world of theirs.

The biggest curse for Pather Panchali is that it was made immediately after the war. More precisely, at a time when neo-realism was the almost the in-thing. Almost every description or review of the film seems to kick off by assigning the neo-realistic tag to the film, perhaps more so after Ray’s enthusiastic comments about The Bicycle Thief (1947). It is beyond doubt that Ray’s employment of non-professional actors, use of natural locations, refusal of make-up and high-key lighting, the tendency of having the backdrop speak for itself and a complete abstinence from the exaggerated gestures and practices of popular cinema owe their debt to the masters of the neo-realist movement. But broadly calling Pather Panchali a neorealist film, basing arguments on the above conditions alone, is but unfair to Ray and his style. In fact, Pather Panchali often works against the “written principles” of neo-realism that pioneers like Zavattini proposed.

pather-panchali-5The neo-realists strongly emphasized that the neo-realist filmmaker be just a passive observer of reality without imposing his interpretations on it. That whatever the situation of their characters, – glory or misery – the filmmaker must maintain objectivity, always subordinating reason to action. Although many of the staunch neo-realists themselves couldn’t achieve this complete objectivity, they did attempt to do so in theory. However, in Pather Panchali, Ray never claims to be a mere observer. It is true that he does not comment on the characters’ actions and situation or throw hints to the audience so as to tell them what to feel. But that does not mean Ray does not take a stance (or a neutral stance for that matter). Ray is biased for sure, but not towards his characters but towards life itself. He takes immense joy in infusing life on to the screen and providing a channel of hope to his protagonists. Quite in contention with the neo-realist theory, Ray does not hesitate using Pt. Ravi Shankar’s soundtrack generously (but not without much caution) or in concocting sequences with a tinge of humour.

Further, deeming Pather Panchali to be a neo-realist film would only result in an over-simplification of Ray’s knowledge of cinema. Ray, being one of the country’s biggest and most renowned cinephiles, has evidently seen and absorbed a large cross-section of world cinema that spans various decades, geographies and cultures. And Pather Panchali stands as a testament for that wherein Ray incorporates many of his influences without ever making it look contrived or out of place. Apart from the overt nods to the neo-realist customs, Ray constructs sequences that conform to Eisenstein’s rules of montage (the scene where Durga is punished by her mother stands out), employs indoor sets that have an expressionistic touch to them. Some of his compositional practices, too, show closeness to Japanese cinema. If you ask me, Ray’s filmmaking in Pather Panchali is nearer to Fellini’s than De Sica’s. Ray’s penchant for close-ups, the dramatic zooms, the occasional submission to simple melodrama and the sheer lust for life that he paints on screen are closer in spirit to Fellini’s works, especially La Strada (1954), than any other director.

pather-panchali-3Like La Strada (another victim of the neo-realist baptism), that was as much away from its purely neo-realist contemporaries as it was close to them, Ray marries the neo-realist objectivity that avoids hyperbole and his own subjective view of life producing what may be, like Fellini’s film, called “neo-realism with a heart”. But again, Ray absorbs and deviates. Where, like many a film of later years, La Strada compares a road trip to life, Pather Panchali compares life to a road trip. Ray treats life as an inevitable journey which should go on no matter how shattering its events are. He punctuates his film with images of little roads through the woods and of characters arriving or departing from the village. In other words, Satyajit Ray presents life as a train journey where passengers may come and passengers may go, but the train itself never stops. Ray wasn’t kidding when he put that train in Pather Panchali – a train that Durga never manages to get on and one that Apu would, in Aparajito (1957), my favorite film of the trilogy.

But clearly, the most important character in the film is Durga – one that is very close to nature. Durga is Nature. Ray shoots her almost always amidst flora and fauna. She roams freely through the woods, groves, rice fields and in the rain without anyone stopping her. She is intrigued by man-made objects like locomotives and telegraph poles. Why, she even passes away after getting drenched in the rain. So is Auntie Indir who is nobody but a grown up version of Durga. Like Durga, she is also thrown out of house by Sarbojaya and who, too, passes away in the middle of the forest. Ray captures Auntie Indir and Durga regularly together in the same frame as he strikes a parallel by cutting back and forth between them. After all, both of them brought Apu up in their own ways. In the poignant end scene, Apu throws the necklace (that Durga was accused of stealing) into the river without an iota of hesitation – returning it back to Durga who has now returned to her nascent form.

pather-panchali-5

Because Ray lets us see only one world (with the occasional letter being the only mode of communication), – that of the village and its people – one can safely assume that Ray is normalizing the world into it and, consequently, that the statements Ray makes about the village are, in fact, applicable to the whole world (or the country in case of social and political observations). However, contrary to popular opinion that the film just talks about the misery of poverty, Pather Panchali goes beyond trivial economic connotations. Except for a few inherent observations about the class system, economics isn’t even a major concern for the film. So aren’t politics and theology that are kept are remote as possible. But that does not mean that the film is entirely universal and just for the sake of being so. Apart from the universal theme of man and nature, Ray’s major concern is the position of women in the society. Although Sarbojaya is the most thoughtful and resourceful member of the family, Harihar rarely listens to her. She is treated no better than a nanny for his kids. Like Mizoguchi (whom he admires, according to his essays) in Sansho the Bailiff (1954), Ray uses his mise en scène to express more than what the script does. But unlike Mizoguchi who used his aesthetics to denote the inevitability of fate, Ray uses it to comment on the pressing social condition of the family, especially Sarbojaya. Ray films her along the margins of the film frame. She is often seen stifled by artificial (physical and social) structures. Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra employ POV shots through doors, holes and ruptures to present a picture like snapshot of the family, with the image of a door often denoting freedom or the lack of it.

If there ever was life on celluloid, it has to be last twenty minutes of Pather Panchali. As the monsoon season takes over summer, skies darken and a breeze picks up. As the surface of the water starts pulsating, flies and other minute life forms start gathering. One wishes that this sequence never ends. The whole scene has a haiku-like visual quality and feel to it, not surprising considering Ray’s exposure to and admiration for Japanese art forms, especially cinema. He notes in his essay “Calm Without, Fire Within” (from his book Our Films, Their Films):

“Then there is the Japanese use of camera, of light. Light is used as the brush is by the painter – to feel and reveal the texture of things, to capture moods, to lend the right expressive weight to a given image.”

In fact, the same text can be used to describing Ray’s style in Pather Panchali that flourishes on the strength of its atmosphere, creating its own world and enticing the audience into it. Unlike the director’s later films such as Charulata (1964), which actually starts seeping through once it has ended, Pather Panchali appeals directly to the sub-conscious. Hypnotic may be the proper word. Throughout the film, there is almost no shot where life is not seen. We always see some life form or the other playing around on the screen. Dogs, cats, cattle and humans galore, Pather Panchali is a film that overflows with vitality. However, such reductive mapping would only lead to another over-simplification that Pather Panchali has been regularly subjected to. Both Pather Panchali and Ray have been called, rather labeled, humanist by admirers and critics all over the world. But such a reading of the film would just conform to a pseudo-liberal view of destitution and reinforce Nargis Dutt’s claims of selling of poverty to the West. In Pather Panchali, Ray turns out to be an animist rather than a humanist and the film itself, pro-life and anti-mankind.

pather-panchali-2Mrs. Mukherjee confiscates the family’s grove as a penalty for the failure of repayment of loan. Later, the people of the village persuade Harihar to stay and tell him that this place is their ancestral land. It is as if the people of the village have assumed the land to be theirs despite of the fact that it was already there much before them. Ray touches upon the conflict between man and nature that has been dear to so many filmmakers before and after him. And this is where Pather Panchali gets deeper than meets the eye. Exactly like Herzog would do in Signs of Life (1968), Ray often composes his shot such that there is interaction between man and nature, with the latter overpowering. It is essentially because of nature – the rains and the cold winds – that the family is forced to move out. Nature has indeed taken revenge. Earlier in the film Sarbojaya tells Harihar that it feels like living in the forest, insisting they move on, and Mrs. Mukherjee that no names are written on fruits. She is, in fact, the only adult in the film who realizes that Land belongs to no body except nature itself. As Harihar and his family move out, a huge cobra is seen moving into the now-deserted house of his. At last, Nature has reclaimed what was always its.

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

“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.