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Sansho the Bailiff
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by Jay Seaver

"An understated epic."
5 stars

It's okay if you initially think someone else in this film is the title character; a bailiff who casts a long shadow over the rest of the film is introduced in the first act and not named in the subtitles until much later (at least, that was the case on the print I saw). I wonder if he was more central to the original legend, but whether that's the case or not, the movie that bears his name is a classic epic of morality.

The bailiff we meet at the start is Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu), a fair-minded man who believes in mercy above all, which is what leads to his reassignment to a backwater, as he is less than enthusiastic about collecting taxes the peasantry can't pay. Initially, his wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their children Zushio and Anju are sent to live with her relatives, but six years later he sends for them, only for them to be captured by slavers, and the children separated from their mother. The children are sold to the cruel Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) and given new name by his kind son. Ten years later, 23-year-old "Mutsu" (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) seems to have forgotten his father's teachings of mercy, though his 18-year-old sister "Shinobu" (Kyoko Kagawa) still has it in her to be kind.

There are a fair number of side characters kicking around, from a faithful servant to fellow slaves to others not even introduced until after Zushio starts to learn what happened to his family. One or two characters even have further name changes in store, as this is the sort of grand tale that may not necessarily punctuate each act with a grand battle, but certainly has a knack for showing when something significant had happened. And while sometimes director Kenji Mizoguchi and writers Yoshikata Yoda and Fuji Yahiro may sometimes seem to be overindulging in melodrama at some points, especially by western standards - a situation that doesn't seem nearly desperate enough for suicide to a twenty-first century American may play differently in Japan, especially looking back at Feisal times - they do manage to make moments that could seem like dull procedure dramatic and emotional.

The cast has a part of that too, of course. While Yoshiaki Hanayagi may not actually appear until a little way into the movie, he does an excellent job of carrying it on his back from that point forward, bringing the adult Zushio from a man who has grown physically strong despite being broken inside to one capable of presenting extraordinary determination without it seeming contrived. Kyoko Kagawa makes a fine complement to him, imbuing Anju with youthful idealism just tempered enough by what she has been through to let it stay believable. Masao Shimizu and Kinuyo Tanaka do fine jobs of creating strong impressions so that the audience is invested in possibly seeing them again, while Eitaro Shindo and Akitake Kono carve out strong positions as the title character and his son.

Mizoguchi and his collaborators do a great job of building Zushio's world; he's a guy who likes to use deep, expansive shots, and he alternates between filling the screen and showing things happening with a fair amount of room around them. The movie has a nice sense of expansiveness in other directions, too: Despite not going in for a lot of montages showing long roads, Japan feels expansive; the sixteen years that the film spans have some weight to them; and the various levels of society that the Taira family traverses make for a chance to have real rising and falling. Ultimately, though, Sansho boils down to a fairly simple idea, like the best epics and folktales: That it might be difficult to do the right thing - that, in fact, the system is often set up to punish those who help those who need it rather than feed their own ambition - but it's worth it, both to have the right thing done and to be remembered well.

Which, actually, makes the idea that this movie is named for Sansho a little more peculiar; maybe the original leged focused on him much more. Still, the title doesn't matter; this film would be a classic under any name.

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originally posted: 06/09/14 13:23:45
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  01-Jan-1955 (NR)
  DVD: 22-May-2007

  01-Jan-1954 (PG)
  DVD: 00--0000

  N/A (PG)

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