Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff brings to mind the first line of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The film has a penetrating mournfulness. Mizoguchi develops his medieval fable about moral freedom and slavery with intuition, cunning, and an overarching sense of tragedy; as it uncoils, this masterwork spirals and expands to encompass all the tricks of history and fate, all the failures of ethics and character that can defeat the best intentions of idealists.
Despite the antiquity of Mizoguchi’s epic folk tale, it speaks to a world scarred by fascism—indeed, the movie may register with American audiences more strongly now than when it premiered four decades ago. The setting is an eleventh-century regime that rewards automatic obedience and efficiency, punishes individualism and altruism, and condones private slave camps that grind men and women to death. The whole environment—physical, emotional, and moral—is close to that of Schindler’s List. When the antihero, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), an escaped slave who becomes a governor, succeeds in freeing his former fellow captives, he, like Oskar Schindler, loses everything except his self-respect. It may seem odd for Mizoguchi to name the movie for its villain—the ruthless taskmaster of a sprawling compound—instead of for the late-blooming Zushio. But the choice reflects the director’s tragic vision. The film is about virtue tortured and altered, emerging only partially triumphant.
Zushio’s statesman father, exiled because he shielded his peasants from a military draft, taught his son that “without mercy, a man is like a beast.” When kidnappers separate Zushio and his sister Anju from their mother—the children are sold into bondage, the mother into prostitution—the boy can’t hold onto his father’s ideals. In Sansho’s inferno, Zushio becomes a barbarian—ike the worst concentration-camp Kapo, he willingly follows Sansho’s command to brand attempted escapees on the forehead—even if the victim is a 70-year-old man who has labored for half a century and yearns only to die free. The first half hour, which depicts the downfall of Zushio’s father and the dispersal of his family, is a cascade of flashbacks and present-tense action.
Kinuyo Tanaka brings a tremulous eloquence to the role of the mother—she’s the movie’s heart as much as the father is its conscience. The most beautiful and ominous image is of the family walking through a field of long grass and reeds, the flora floating above their heads like an army’s plumes; the most devastating sequence shows the mother and nurse being thrown into a boat while the children are seized onshore. Once Zushio and Anju arrive at Sansho’s camp, this volatile lyricism gives way to a steady, cumulative power. It’s as if Mizoguchi is saying, with melancholy, that this is how the world works.
Mizoguchi’s packed compositions express the harrowing pull of the narrative line—and the residual humanity that tugs against it. Every positive action in this movie has an opposite reaction, leaving an increment of glory in defeat. When Zushio regains his empathy and honor and flees Sansho’s camp, Anju (the spiritually radiant Kyoko Kagawa) protects his flight with her life. There’s never been a more rending and transcendent vision of reunion than the tearful clasping of Zushio to his hobbled, half-mad mother. Zushio finds her on a tidal-wave-ravaged island. He tells her that Anju and his father are dead, then begs her forgiveness for arriving without the wealth or power to help her; in order to follow his father’s precepts, he had to relinquish the office of governor. His mother replies that if he weren’t faithful to his father’s memory, she and Sansho “couldn’t meet here this way now.” Irony and tragedy merge—you cry for what they’ve lost and what they’ve saved.
The movie explores the strengths and the tenuousness of family ties in scenes that are freshets of feeling. In Mizoguchi, as in Faulkner, the past isn’t dead—as Faulkner said, “It’s not even past.” When Sansho sees the freed and elevated Zushio, he exclaims, “It’s like a fairy tale! A slave becoming a governor!” But in this fairy tale no one lives happily ever after. Terrifying and cathartic, Sansho the Bailiff is a morality play without easy moralism.