It's fitting (though probably coincidental) that Criterion release its Blu-ray edition of Sansho The Bailiff in the season of Tarantino's Django Unchained; both are concerned intimately with the institution of slavery and the revenge enacted because of it. But where Django is animated by rage, Sansho is far more somber, more plainspoken, and far less convinced that any sort of resolution is possible. It's probably impossible for an observer to say which film 'gets' slavery better, but it goes almost without saying that Sansho makes you feel it more, making clear the human cost of slavery as no other film ever has. Where the study of history itself falls short in sharing the spiritual and moral burden of those in bondage, Sansho The Bailiff does not.
Feudal Japan, as it is seen here, was a brutal place, controlled to a large degree by warlords and populated by serfs whose only protection derived from their value as property and labor. It was, like feudal Europe, analogous to tribalism, distinguished only by its pageantry and its titles. In the opening of Sansho, one of the few governors whose decency has survived is usurped by a Lord, thus banished to the hinterlands of a distant province. His wife and children and two children, Zushio and Anju, manage to escape his fate briefly, but while attempting to visit him, they are tricked by a cruel priestess, then sold into prostitution and slavery. The children are separated from their mother, and sent to an estate governed by Sansho (Eitarō Shindō), a slave-driver whose authority is unquestioned. While Anju is faithful to her father's principles of mercy, Zushio accepts a post as an overseer, exacting punishment on the other slaves in exchange for leniency from Sansho. But deep down, he never loses his desire to see his mother again, or to undo the terrible work that Sansho has done.
Though it pains all us to admit it, there are certain things that film probably can't capture. There are many films about topics as stultifying in their horror as the slave trade and the Holocaust, but none of them (including this one) truly evoke what it was like to be there and be subject to it. They can't; films have a finite running time, and are selectively shot and edited so as to be filtered through the perspective of a film-maker. By their very definition, they are contained experiences. Being a product of the 1950s, Sansho was even further limited, unable to show any of the violence that modern audiences would associate with the topic. In place of that violence, however, Sansho has humanity (or more accurately its revocation). Such a platitude would mean little for a lesser film, but Mizoguchi's style is so mannered and so direct that it might be likened to a novel without any commas. To dwell any further would simply be pity, something that neither Zushio nor Sansho has any use for. Besides, the facts are bad enough as they are.
Consider the title of the film; by any account, Zushio is the protagonist, but he has ceded even that acknowledgement to his tormentor, relegated to the background of his own story. Consider how free of historical context the film is; we are presented with no statistics as to how many people were enslaved, killed, or otherwise scarred by the practice. We are simply given the story of a single family, and allowed to multiply its horror several million times to give imagined shape to the real tragedy of what occurred. Even if that too is ultimately insufficient, it manages convert the statistics of genocide into something more imaginable than the simple arithmetic that we're used to. We may not be able to picture 60 million dead people, but we can know what it is lose the people we care about, and to lose ourselves trying to get them back. Sansho The Bailiff surely does.
The film itself has been gorgeously restored with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. There is an audio commentary by Japanese literature scholar Jeffrey Angles, as well as interviews with critic Tadao Sato, assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka, and actress Kyoko Kagawa regarding the impact of the film. There's also the customary booklet with an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu and two versions of the story on which the film is based: Ogai Mori’s 1915 “Sansho the Steward” and an earlier oral variation in written form.
"Sansho The Bailiff (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale February 26, 2013 and is not rated. Foreign. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Written by Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda. Starring Kyoko Kagawa, Kinuyo Tanaka, Eitaro Shindo, Yoshiaki Hanayagi.