Saturday, January 7, 2012

#386: Sansho the Bailiff

(Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

Over the course of this little journey of mine, there have been a handful of films about which I often wonder whether or not I gave them a fair shake. I certainly try to evaluate each movie on its own terms and give it time to sink in rather than casually check it off my list in a rote and emotionless factory-line manner - something which would seem to defeat the true purpose of watching all of these films and reduce it to some bragging point, seeing them just to say I have seen them. But occasionally a movie can hit me on the wrong day or I can miss some small moment or context and a great movie becomes a merely good one in my memory.

Mizoguchi's Ugetsu is one of those films - an oft-praised, extremely beautiful movie that I felt very b-plus/a-minus about after my first viewing. However, there remained a little seed in the back of my mind that kept telling me "you've missed something there! You didn't give it the chance it deserves!" Still, my lack of enthusiasm made me put off watching the director's other film in the collection, Sansho the Bailiff (he also has an Eclipse set and a crapload of stuff on Hulu, a handful of which I expect to see get actual releases). Mizoguchi's follow-up to Ugetsu is a folk story about a family torn apart by the father's moral stand, and it's a very different film from its predecessor. It's also a masterpiece, one of the most moving films of its era, and a simple but powerful message movie - it certainly makes me want to take another look at Ugetsu.

But this post isn't about Ugetsu, it's about Sansho the Bailiff. Set in medieval times, the film focuses on a brother and sister who are separated from their mother on the way to join their exiled father and sold into slavery. Though the film is initially about both of them, the early scene in which their father basically lays out the moral backbone of the film's story to the son is a big hint upfront that he is the true protagonist of the film. He, too, is the only character with any substantial internal arc, moving from innocent child to faithful - even vindictive - slave until he finally redeems himself on the path to reuniting with his heartbroken mother. Their final reunion is one of the great emotional peaks in the Collection, and Mizoguchi shoots it with a gentle, poetic touch that manages to combine the best of Ozu's light hand - something often identified as stereotypically Japanese - with a more impressionistic eye.

Much of the contrast between this moment and Ozu's work can be found in their settings. Ozu's characters are often tied to their cosmopolitan - or at least domestic - surroundings. They move across these spaces in gentle and unobtrusive ways, yet they are bound by them and the social responsibilities they represent. Even taking into account Sansho the Bailiff's earlier setting, the film clearly delineates between the sharp angles of the Japanese structure and the soft oneness of nature. The film is deeply spiritual - not in terms of personal faith, but instead in the grand tradition of social justice at the core of many of the essential teachings of Buddhism (and Christianity for that matter). But there's also a political undertone that is most apparent in the film's title - Mizoguchi has chosen to name the film after the slave holder who is essentially a bureaucrat without power and banally evil. This clear choice to shift a timeless and (at least nationally) well-recognized folk tale toward an emphasis on the nature of this side-character is a strong indication that Mizoguchi had more contemporary concerns in mind when making the film - namely, the Japanese role in World War II.

These more intellectual intentions - which could be explained by someone much more engaged with Japanese culture than I - don't take away at all from the core emotional impact of the film. This is of course as it should be; no movie that strives for greatness can let its message get in the way of its engagement with the audience or it ceases to be a film and becomes an intellectual exercise. The fact that Sansho the Bailiff succeeds on both levels is what makes it such a notable masterpiece, and it's what will keep me engaged with Mizoguchi's work long after I've checked every spine number off my list.

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