Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 124 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono Japanese
Release Date: May 22, 2007
Review Date: May 16, 2007
A world filled with utmost cruelty and yet odd moments of compassion is to be found in Kenji Mizoguchi’s memorable film Sansho the Bailiff. Like the legendary director’s other well known masterworks, Sansho the Bailiff is filmed at a measured pace, but its hypnotic spell mixed with tender performances and painter-like images is hard to describe with words. It must be experienced first-hand to understand the film’s unmistakable ability to shatter and overwhelm.
In 11th century Japan, a family is torn apart by a succession of unfairness, bad luck, and vandalism. The provincial governor is arrested for refusing to send his peasants to war at the bidding of the military when he considers their staying put to work the land in a time of need more pressing. As his wife and his two children attempt to reunite with him in exile, they’re separated by bandits with the mother sold to a brothel and the children to a life of slavery under a cruel private manor lord named Sansho. The film spends the rest of its running time with the various members of the family attempting to break free of their bonds so they can be united once more. It’s a long, slow road they have to travel over the course of ten years, and not all of them will survive.
Director Mizoguchi was a painter in his early life, and one can see this so plainly in his framing of the action for the camera. He rarely uses close-ups shooting almost everything in medium shots, so that when the few medium close-ups do occur at climactic moments in the lives of the characters, they’re stunning in their impact on the viewer. There’s an evocative wind pipe that provides much of the music on the soundtrack, a lone and almost desolate sound reflecting the disheartened emotions of these distressed people. And when some uplifting events do happen for characters, there’s a joyous catharsis in the viewer sharing in the happiness of the moment. Alas, sometimes the bliss is fleeting, just like in life, and the director has no qualms in picturing that as well. Mizoguchi is a very languid director preferring long takes, so we have time to sift the many emotions that come wafting toward and through us during the film, all the better to savor its richness and complexity.
Heartbreaking performances abound in the film, especially among the three principals. Yosiaki Hanayagi as the shamed son who rises to great power only to risk it all for his sense of what’s right and honorable has the deepest emotional journey of the leads, and his performance is superb. As his gentle sister who’s far stronger than anyone suspects, Kyoko Kagawa is magisterial. With less screen time, actress Kinuyo Tanaka still makes a lasting impression early in the film and then in the film’s final few moments as the children’s desperate mother. As the title character, Eitaro Shindo is properly blustery and appalling. Akitake Kono as his thoughtful and gentle son Taro is also exemplary.
Sansho the Bailiff doesn’t rely on huge set pieces or hundreds of extras to make a significant impact. It’s a quiet film filled with themes as personally identifiable (love of family and the valuing of all human life) as any film ever made.
The film’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio has been reproduced faithfully for this DVD transfer with the usual slight windowboxing that Criterion favors on full frame releases. The black and white picture is reasonably sharp but could have benefited with a bit more contrast. Still, the grayscale is more than adequate with solid blacks, and aside from a couple of slight instances of dirt and one scratch at the very end of the film, artifacts are not present. The white English subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack is adequate but no more. There is some hiss to be heard in the quietest sections of the film, and there is some flutter on the soundtrack, too. That aside, the timbre is just a bit shrill in sections and tinny sounding in others.
The single Criterion disc offers some interesting extras. First up is an audio commentary by Japanese professor Jeffrey Angles. It’s an exceptional track spoken with enthusiasm but not in an overwhelming fashion. He provides trivia about the film, of course, but he also offers up background information on various participants in the project (writer, composer) and presents an astute analysis of the film which deepens its meanings even for someone who’s seen the film multiple times.
There are three video interviews on the disc, all presented in anamorphic video and with easy-to-read white subtitles. First is a 10-minute interview with actress Kyoko Kagawa speaking on her impressions about working on the film, particularly Mizoguchi’s directorial technique. First assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka speaks about 14½ minutes on what it was like to work with a director who was always skeptical of assistants until they proved their mettle and how unimpressed he was with the finished film. Japanese film critic Tadao Sato speaks 23 minutes on the themes in the film and particularly Mizoguchi’s esteemed view of strong women as saviors of civilization.
The enclosed booklet offers almost 80 pages of stills, an essay by writer-teacher Mark Le Fanu on the lessons Sansho the Bailiff has to teach us all, and two different versions of the folktale that the screenplay for the film was based on.
Sansho the Bailiff won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for good reason. It’s a superlative meditation on the nature of family ties, personal honor, humanism, and the lengths to which people will go to maintain them despite the greatest of odds. In its lyrical images and dazzling portrayals, it’s a film I can most highly recommend.