The World Is Too Much
Chris Wisniewski on Sansho the Bailiff

Though we’ll never know the exact number, Kenji Mizoguchi probably directed almost 100 films, many of which have been lost forever. Criminally, as of this writing, Ugetsu is the only Mizoguchi film in print on DVD, and only a handful of others are readily available in any format. To call Mizoguchi obscure is to make an obvious but necessary point. Even those of us familiar with some of his oeuvre are certainly unfamiliar with the vast majority of it, and Mizoguchi’s work is easily too diverse to be judged by the handful of films most of us can actually get our hands on, many of which he made at the end of his career. Though we can—and should—lament this sad state of affairs, it makes Mizoguchi’s towering reputation all the more remarkable. Indeed, for those of us who have seen even a small fraction of his films, there can be no doubt of Mizoguchi’s greatness: There’s an effortlessness to his filmmaking, a kind of self-evident artistry that is, to put it simply, immediate and overwhelming. His films open up to us, envelope us, sweep us along with their spectacular beauty and their graceful craft. His camera moves with such assurance that we follow him without hesitation, despite the often unbearably dark subject matter of his films. To be in the hands of a Mizoguchi is to experience something singular and undeniable; there have been many great filmmakers, but there are only a few who are great in the way Mizoguchi is great—instinctively, insistently, almost primally.

This has never been more apparent to me as a filmgoer than it was the first time I saw Sansho the Bailiff. Based on a Japanese folk tale and set in the eleventh century, Sansho is a meditation on human slavery told, ostensibly, through a melodrama of fathers and sons. A provincial governor is exiled after defending the rights of peasants. Before leaving, he gives his son, Zushio (played as an adult by Yoshiaki Hanayagi), a family heirloom—a small Goddess of Mercy—accompanied by a moral imperative, “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Be sympathetic to others.” Six years later, Zushio and his sister Anju (played as an adult by Kyoku Kagawa) are separated from their mother (Kinoyu Tanaka) and sold to the malevolent bailiff Sansho (Eitaro Shindo). Sansho’s son Taro (Akitake Kono) repudiates his father’s cruelty and flees; Zushio, meanwhile, grows to be a cynical surrogate child to the bailiff, mistreating his fellow slaves and violently enforcing Sansho’s authority at the price of the lofty ideals instilled by his father. A series of reversals follow, in which Taro succumbs to his own brand of cynicism as Zushio’s idealism is eventually (and tentatively) restored. This allegory plays out almost schematically, culminating in a brash but admirable political stand taken by Zushio, which has only ambiguous consequences by the end of the film.

Sansho the Bailiff transcends its apparent schematism, though, in the way Mizoguchi deftly subverts his story of masculine redemption. Mizoguchi has often been labeled both a Marxist and a feminist, and this film is typical in its preoccupation with the price of salvation and idealism, its focus on material human suffering, especially as it’s experienced by women. With slight cinematic accents and shifts in perspective—a camera move here, a lingering image there—he takes emphasis off of the men, placing it instead on the female anguish that lingers just behind the central narrative. Early in the film, as Zushio’s father accepts his political fate, Mizoguchi’s camera tilts down from him to his wife, who, we will eventually learn, will bear the true burden of the governor’s self-sacrifice. Years later, after she is forced to become a courtesan, we see her, standing on the seashore, crying out for the children she has lost. Her voice haunts the film, echoing on the soundtrack for her children to hear and to feel her misery, though time and distance separate them. By the time her son finally finds her—crippled and blind—any redemption he’s achieved for himself is made trivial by contrast with the quiet ache she embodies.

It is Anju, though, whose suffering provides the film with its most indelible image: a young, beautiful woman, choosing between herself and her brother, knows she has no option but to give herself to her brother’s cause and descends, silently, into the sea; a cut follows, to a woman watching this suicide, and when the camera returns, we’re left with nothing but the ripple of water. It’s both beautiful and unbearably sad, as though Mizoguchi wishes to look at the cruelest, basest aspects of humanity and to offer human anguish up to the casual indifference—and the quiet loveliness—of the natural world. The sea and trees become a kind of Greek chorus, a presence that bares witness to deep pain. Natural beauty serves as a point of contrast and also as an enduring spectator, a kind of great ordering principle that makes human suffering seem all the more futile and needless, but also more mysteriously poignant and inevitable (and if this description makes Mizoguchi sound like a forerunner to the reclusive American filmmaker Terrence Malick, it’s no wonder: Malick briefly returned to the public eye a few years before The Thin Red Line with a project to adapt Sansho the Bailiff to the stage).

A few days ago, I watched Sansho the Bailiff for the third time. Knowing that I would be writing about it, I decided to take notes. As the film wore on, the notes became increasingly sporadic. By the final half hour, I abandoned them entirely; I was simply too overwhelmed by the emotional and aesthetic purity of the film. This, despite the fact that I was watching it on a fuzzy VHS with subtitling so lousy I probably missed one out of every five sentences in its entirety. But that’s how it is with art—sometimes, no matter how mediated or shoddy our experience of it, it makes no difference; in spite of the circumstance, greatness becomes manifest, palpable, immediate.