Ranking: #64/111

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi (Japan)

Genre: Historical Period Drama

Sansho the Bailiff is a classic Japanese moral folk tale masterfully made by Kenji Mizoguchi and filmed in black-and-white, using a predominantly soft grey palette. It’s a beautiful, stirring film.  Mizoguchi brings alive the period, which is the eleventh century in feudal Japan, while turning the folk tale itself into a universal parable appealing for humanity and ethics in society.

The story concerns the tragic splitting up of a close-knit aristocratic family in medieval Japan. After angering a feudal lord, a virtuous and noble governor is banished to a far-off kingdom. His wife, Tamaki, and their two children, Zushiō and Anju, are sent away, but not before the banned father has told his son, “Without mercy, man is a beast” and given him a statuette of their goddess of mercy.

Later, when the family are journeying to visit their father, they are tricked by a devious priestess who sells them into the hands of slave traders. The mother is sold into prostitution on the island of Sado, while the children become slaves on a brutal manorial estate run by the heartless Sansho. If any slaves try to escape from the heavily guarded estate, they are branded and tortured. It’s a life ruled by fear and the estate is effectively a slave labour camp. Sansho enjoys legal protection under the corrupt Ministry of the Right. Sansho’s son, Tarō, though, is much more humane and tries to advise and protect the two children as much as he can.

The children grow to young adulthood. While Anju still practises the principles her parents taught her, Zushiō has been brutalised by the traumas the children have undergone. He has repressed his humanity and his better self. He believes he can only survive the rigours of their existence by hardening his heart. He becomes an overseer and ends up branding an old man who has tried to escape. The oppressed has become an oppressor. The abused has become an abuser. The branding of the old man is a terrible deed which will later haunt him.

Then, one day, Anju hears a new slave girl from the island of Sado singing a song which mentions her and Zushiō in its lyrics. This gives her hope that their mother is still alive. The idea of escaping to find her takes root in her.

Later, Zushiō is commanded to take Namiji, a terminally ill old woman, out of the slave camp to die in Nature, as was the custom at the time. Anju accompanies them and they realise this is the opportunity to escape. Anju stays behind to distract the guards to allow her brother time to escape. After his escape, however, she decides to commit suicide so she won’t be forced to reveal Zushiō’s whereabouts under the duress of torture.

After his escape, Zushiō meets up with Tarō at a temple. He leaves Namiji in his care at the temple and sets off for Kyoto to report the inhuman conditions of the slaves on Sansho’s estate to the Chief Advisor. When the Chief Advisor recognises who Zushiō is, he explains that his exiled father has died. Then, in an act of great generosity, he makes the escaped slave the governor of Tango. Happily, this is the province where Sanshō’s slave camp is situated. Soon afterwards, Zushiō, as governor, issues an edict forbidding all slavery in his territory. He bans the sale of human beings and forbids the use of slaves.

When Sanshō resists the enforcement of the new regulation, he and his men are arrested. The freed slaves burn down the manor. In an act of redemption, perhaps trying to compensate for his terrible act of cruelty in branding the old man, Zushio has freed the slaves. He has lived up to his father’s teaching, his life coming full circle. The movie has illustrated the destructive effects of a lack of humanity and a lack of ethics in the society he has examined. And the transformation of Zushiō from a brutal slave boy and overseer at the slave camp to an enlightened governor and liberator of humanity is persuasively depicted.

Sansho the Bailiff stands out in the history of Japanese cinema as one of its most moving Buddhist parables.

His mission completed, Zushio resigns from his post and begins to search for his mother. Finally, he finds an aged and decrepit old woman on a beach on Sado who is singing the same song which had convinced Anju that their mother was still alive. However, Tamaki has gone blind and does not believe that this really is her long-lost son. Only when he hands her the religious statuette, which she can feel, though not see, is the reconciliation between mother and son possible.

It is one of the most poignant moments in cinematic history. It’s a film that leaves lasting impressions on the memory of all sensitive viewers. Yet it never becomes sentimental or melodramatic. Artistic and editorial discipline are upheld throughout, with every shot and scene being carefully composed. The cast assiduously avoid the common trap of overacting.  The use of sound, too, is economical.

What a powerful, yet restrained, cinematic story for the ages!