Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan’s master filmic fable-maker, has only recently re-emerged in the Western world as a living, breathing entity after years of seeming abandonment to the history books. This is all the more curious because, barring Kurosawa’s Rashomon, he was the Western world’s first introduction to Japanese cinema and by far the most popular Japanese director internationally at the time (yes, more popular than Kurosawa). And yet he was almost swept away on the currents of forgotten time. Pity, and indeed ironic, because of the three acknowledged masters of Japanese cinema (Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi), his films are by far the most timeless. While Ozu dealt in eerily impressionist and heartbreaking depictions of his present-day Japan, and Kurosawa brought down the hammer with classical themes rendered bigger than life, Mizoguchi’s films were haunting, elegiac statements of dread that nonetheless discovered an eternal humanity and respect for all humans in elevating their shared depression to mythic status.
Today, Mizoguchi’s “masterpiece” is largely considered a toss-up between Ugestsu and Sansho the Bailiff. If Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu was a tragic horror, this is horrific tragedy. Mythic in its own way, Sansho plays out less like an ethereal afterlife and more like the daily doldrums of perpetually human existence. It finds majesty and horror in the mundane, remaining thoroughly unsentimental as it draws out the subdued anger of their expression. The film is as impressionist as Ugetsu, but it is far more chaotic. Many scenes are louder, angrier, and less elegiac in their dreamlike aura. The simplistic comparison would be to compare Ugetsu to Ozu’s work such as Tokyo Story and Sansho to a Kurosawa film: less impressionistic and more active. But this does a grave disservice to how both films are uniquely Mizoguchi. Both are stately, nightmarish, and above all, uniquely interested in humans as they relate to the geography of the world around them. Mizuoguchi films his characters this way, as small figments that exist not individually but in relation to the world and eternally connected not so much to each other but to the physical earth around them.
Insofar as this film is based in narrative, it centers a mother, Tamaki (Knuyo Tanaka) and her two children Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanyagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), and the effect their husband/father, a local governor in Feudal Japan, being exiled has on their lives. Grieving, they eventually decide to visit him but become lost and are soon tricked – and sold into slavery. The mother is sold to another region, while the children are brought to a Bailiff, Sansho (Eitaro Shindo), and grow up with his many slaves. Zushio grows up a slave overseer, complicit in the actions of his master, who takes seeming delight in the limited power he can gain from his position. His sister Anju is more passive and openly anguished. She wants to escape and continually begs Zushio to join her. He refuses, until one day he has a change of heart.
Like Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff is also very openly a composed film…Mizoguchi directs with the most piercing of painterly brushes. He confronts every detail, but it is very clearly the work of a director, a work of artifice. We are very much watching characters as figures here, propped up by Mizoguchi’s surest hand and the actor’s piercing performances that unearth the hearts of people who have lost more than they can handle. Mizoguchi is not interested in telling this as “reality”, but as the essence of reality distilled through a filmic lens – a visual painting working to capture a reality framed out for us to view, not so much living and breathing as a propped-up like a dream.
To this effect, his camera does the lion’s share of the work. Most notable is the visual depth of the film. And I mean that literally; his is a film all about “depth”, insofar as the physical depth of the characters’ movement toward and away from the frame defines the storytelling. Characters move around the frame like inspired chaos, position-ally reflecting their states of being. This is done to greatest effect in the famous scene where the children are separated from their mother, where frames capture the relationship between Tamaki’s pained face, her children growing steadily less present, and the wide gulf of beach and water now separating them. The scene is ravaging, revealing physical distance that defines a crucial change of narrative frame as the film shifts from mother to children. In the same scene, we also see Mizoguchi’s perfect restraint when it comes to moving and not moving his camera, choosing to follow his characters with the camera as they run away – but he always follows at a different speed from the character’s movement, usually slower, giving the sensation of chasing after them as they still heartbreakingly manage to slip away.
Elsewhere, his painterly composition is in effect in every frame. In the aforementioned scene, the boat carrying away the children is surrounded by water of an eternally flat grey that bleeds into the sky to create a smoky, pointedly flattened image of perpetual emptiness – as though a monotone greyness is taking them over and beckoning them away, sucking all complexity and emotion from their lives and rendering them no longer living flesh-and-blood human beings but mere figures in a painting. Later, in cinema’s most enigmatic suicide scene, Mizoguchi has a character walk into the water to their end. But, befitting the film’s stately tone, he captures it not with raw detail but at a distance. He gives us a sense of the character in relation to the lake itself as it swallows them. He does not move into the scene, but rests. He does not cut for maximum impact, but lingers. He establishes it not as reality but a very intentional “image”, reflecting how little we can truly know about the characters and how their lives and the camera which depicts them must innately encourage distance. He frames off the scene, as he does the film, as a haunting dream set aside for eternity – not a gripping, forceful film that demands to be seen, but one which holds back and encourages dissonance, something which leaves us not with sentimental care but the candid, clinical fact of human decay. If we want drama, he doesn’t give it to us. And for this reason, his distance, the thing which would lessen the impact, makes the film that much more disconcerting and destructive.
Mizoguchi’s crowning achievement, however, is his ending. Words cannot express its transcendent power. It is rivaled only by the ending of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, but while that film’s ending is purely optimistic (indeed, perhaps the most heart-warming moment in any film ever made), Sansho the Bailiff’s ending is just about the most conflicted ever filmed. Like some peculiar humanist concoction of pure dread and unspeakable humanity, it is as mythically pinpoint and affecting as anything ever captured on celluloid, grand in scale yet intimate in detail and scope. The film, like this scene, invokes the existential pandemonium of human distance, acknowledging what of people cannot be regained or truly “known” to others. And, in the final moment, the camera lingering on a flickering, reflective lake – mimicking a warped mirror or a film screen – the film closes not with an ultimate, conclusive statement but an open pause, a reminder of the ability of cinema to consider the world only insofar as we use cinema to reflect on ourselves.