Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Yoshiaki Hanayaki, Kinuyo Tanaka, Ky˘ko Kagawa, Eitar˘ Shind˘, Masao Shimizu
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 full-screen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, interviews, booklet with stories
Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: May 22, 2007

"Without mercy, man is like a beast."

Film ****

As humans, we cling faithfully to the fundamental belief that, despite our many faults and foibles, we retain a certain capacity for kindness and compassion.  Our ability to love or even to sacrifice altruistically of ourselves elevates us above the simple mentality of the common animal.  We need to believe that some essential goodness resides in each and every one of us, prevailing upon us to commiserate with those less fortunate, guiding our deeds towards a greater purpose, not just for the benefit of one individual but for all humanity.

But in such circumstances wherein the baseness of human nature, of avarice and lust, greed and desire, does overwhelm us, then how do we persevere?  What emotional pillar, what hope, supports us that we might hold fast to the strength to await the better day?  Must the natural tendency of humanity always be to serve some intangible law of entropy, that the rigid end be one of inevitable disorder and despair?

Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece Sansh˘ Dayű (Sansho the Bailiff, 1954) is the story of such great tribulation and suffering, a design to test the true heart and strength of the human soul.  Unfolding slowly like a Shakespearean tragedy, this film traces the disintegration of a compassionate family and the terrible labors which must be endured before some hope for redemption is reclaimed.

As the film opens in medieval Japan, a kindly governor of just principle has been ordered into exile for trying to protect his people.  When his wife and children travel to faraway Tsukushi to join him, they are waylaid by merciless bandits.  The governor's wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) is forced into prostitution while her children Anju and Zushio are sold to slave laborers.  Thus begins a long and sad quest towards reunion for this fragmented family.

Set in the Heian period during eleventh-century Japan, a classical era of great cultural prosperity, Sansho the Bailiff exposes the darker side of human nature, that our capacity to achieve much that is good is tempered by an equal capacity for much evil.  Beneath the beauty of the Heian era lingers the spectre of an unjust slavery system and a corrupt political hierarchy.  In an illustration of this lack of compassion, one minor character in the film, after his failure to help his fellow man, bemoans, "I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them."  Such a terrible statement!  Yet it is one of tragic verisimilitude, a proclamation of a universal truth that has held true for as long as humanity has existed, from the infancy of our civilization until even now, sadly.  Truly, throughout the film, there is a foreboding sense of sad futility that despite heroic efforts, only tragedy and heartbreak seem to await Tamaki and her children.

Sansho the Bailiff also explores the manner in which oppressed or exploited women, in this case both Tamaki and her daughter Anju, deal with their fates, whether through rebellion or through sacrifice.  This veneration of womanhood is actually one of Kenji Mizoguchi's favorite themes and is a recurring motif in many of his films.

While the film bears the name of the cruel slave owner Sansho, he is in fact a minor supporting character in the story.  Sansho the Bailiff is actually the story of Anju and Zushio, particularly with an epic focus upon the life's journey of the son Zushio, who from childhood into adulthood must endure grave injustices while withholding the secret of his high birth.  Zushio's trials, from his cruel capture to his temptations, his bittersweet escape, and his final reunion with his mother, will eventually teach him true empathy with the plight of the common people that he may better embrace filial piety and the pure morality of his own father.  In a sense, Zushio's trials serve the singular purpose of teaching him a wisdom shared by his father, that a path of mercy and compassion is the noblest path of all.

The film contrasts the need for faith in one's moral values versus a passive complicity as a dutiful servant to a corrupt provincial hierarchy.  In a sense, the film's depiction of the inhumanity and cruelty of the Heian medieval system and its inherent need for change parallels a similarly haunting sentiment in post-war Japan, when the country's flawed monarchy was adjusting to its difficult transformation into a democracy.  Such a motif does not actually exist in the original folklore tales which inspired the film.  Sansho the Bailiff resonates all the more strongly for this extra dimension of philosophical texturing.

Sansho the Bailiff has often been considered Kenji Mizoguchi's finest masterpiece.  Its simple narrative arc belies the haunting depth of its tragic treatise on human nature.  The story is not an optimistic one, but perhaps it may give us reason to ponder our purpose in life or to re-consider our real priorities, for the heartless accumulation of material wealth has little value measured against the true worth of a pure heart and spiritual health.

Video ***

Sansho the Bailiff is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.  The transfer was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive.  There are very few dust marks, and Sansho the Bailiff generally looks quite good for such an old film.  There is some distracting fluctuation in the emulsion density in certain scenes, but otherwise the images are crisp with strong definition, sharp details, and solid delineation of black levels.  This fine transfer faithfully reproduces the subtle nuances of director of photography Kazuo Miyagawa's exquisite cinematography, which at times resembles images found within Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints.

Audio ** Ż

The original Japanese monaural soundtrack is presented on this disc.  As with many early post-war Japanese films, the audio dynamic range for Sansho the Bailiff is somewhat narrow but has been cleaned of scratches and extraneous pops for this release.

Features ****

Among the bonus features are three interviews.  In the first interview (24 min.), film historian Tadao Sato discusses the themes found in Sansho the Bailiff and the original folk tale which inspired this film.  He praises the wondrous composition inherent to much of Mizoguchi's film imagery, particularly in Sansho the Bailiff.  Sato also describes Mizoguchi's tendencies as a director, including the influence of Noh and Kabuki theater on his films, his patented long camera takes, his own life's influence on his films, and the traits he sought in his favorite actresses.

In the second interview (14 min.), Tokuzo Tanaka recalls his duties as assistant director on Sansho the Bailiff.  Tanaka discusses how various scenes in the film were shot, how the music was created, and what research was required to recreate the authentic world of the Japanese Heian era.  He also relates various anecdotes concerning Kenji Mizoguchi's reputation as a sometimes overly-zealous perfectionist.

In the final interview (10 min.), acclaimed actress Kyoko Kagawa reminisces about her role as the sister Anju in Sansho the Bailiff.  She also discusses her experiences working with Kenji Mizoguchi on the film.

The most significant on-disc bonus feature is the informative commentary track by Jeffrey Angles.  The Japanese literature professor concentrates on the film's moral elements which elevate the film above the original oral folk tale, the Ogai Mori short story, and even the film's screenplay.  Angles also comments on the music, the narrative structure, and the influences of Japanese theater on the film.

An elegant booklet, complete with many screenshots from Sansho the Bailiff, is also packaged with this release.  This booklet contains an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu discussing the film and two versions of the folk story on which the film was based.  The first story is the translated version of Ogai Moriĺs 1915 "Sansho Dayu."  The second story is a transcription of the oral folklore, in which the tale is also known as The Story of Anju and Zushi˘.


Sansho the Bailiff is a dark epic about human perseverance against great suffering.  It is also an exceptionally tragic film but one well-deserving of its reputation as one of Kenji Mizoguchi's most moving masterpieces.

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com