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If you took a quick poll of the general population of film lovers as to who the most famous classic Japanese directors are, the list would probably be headed by Akira Kurosawa. He is certainly the most visible of the old Japanese masters, though Yasujiro Ozu would likely run him a close second. Trailing some way behind these twin modern favorites, there might, just might, appear a third name, that of Kenji Mizoguchi, the eldest of the trio and the director of eighty-six films made between 1923 and 1956.
Fifty years ago, the same list would have been differently ordered: invisible, or nearly invisible, then would have been Ozu, whose movies only really began to be known in the West during the 1960s. Kurosawa’s fame has indeed been constant: films like Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), then and now, have been absolutely instrumental in introducing the glories of Japanese cinema to Western audiences. But the really resplendent name in the old days was Mizoguchi’s. The French, in particular, were crazy about his work: it was an item of faith among the young critics at Cahiers du cinéma during the fifties (who included future film directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette) that Mizoguchi was not only the greatest of Japanese masters but also high in the ranks of the greatest filmmakers who had ever practiced the art. General audiences and festival juries of the time tended to share this view: in three successive years at the beginning of the 1950s, Mizoguchi films—The Life of Oharu (1952), Ugetsu (1953), and Sansho the Bailiff (1954)—won top awards at the Venice Film Festival, an unprecedented achievement.
The reasons for the subsequent decline in his fame are hard to pin down. Mizoguchi is a demanding director, and he is not easy to pigeonhole. Unlike the work of Kurosawa or Ozu, his films rarely fit into identifiable genre categories—for instance, the samurai film or shomin-geki (films about the ordinary existence of middle-class people). And, after the initial enthusiasm of the French, he was somewhat neglected by the critical and scholarly worlds. Perhaps it was his eclecticism. Although Mizoguchi’s main, abiding theme was the historical condition of women in Japanese society—a subject he approaches with extreme tenderness and sympathy, and with a correspondingly caustic political scorn toward the conditions that, over the centuries, combined to keep this section of humanity in servitude—he grappled with this topic from many different angles. Still, if Mizoguchi’s star once waned, it is one of the ongoing achievements of the DVD revolution that it can help us redress these lapses. Films and filmmakers are granted another chance to be examined and judged—not only by critics and scholars but, just as important, by the wider general public. And, happily, this is what has been happening with Mizoguchi.
After a long apprenticeship in the silent cinema, Mizoguchi hit his stride as a director in the early 1930s, a golden age for Japanese cinema. A series of films set in the Meiji (roughly, the late Victorian) epoch were followed by two films of striking modernity on which his reputation was established: Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both of which came out in 1936). A number of defining aspects of Mizoguchi’s cinema come together in these movies: skill with actresses, realism of texture and dialogue, total lack of sentimentality in outlook, and a marked stylistic preference for the long take over editing as a method for building narrative. All these traits appear in his subsequent films, with different emphases at different stages of his career. Sometimes he is a rigorously austere stylistic perfectionist (as in his wartime version of the famous samurai tale The 47 Ronin); at other times—for example, in a series of postwar films influenced by neorealism—he comes across as “expressive,” provisional, and committed to the sketch. His social canvas varies too, enormously, from the lower depths (above all, the world of geisha and prostitution) to the peaks of aristocratic society, and he roams through the centuries.
Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi’s eighty-first film, belongs with a group of four or five outstanding masterpieces on historical themes, including Ugetsu, that he directed late in his career for the Daiei production company. Like almost all the films of his maturity, it is based on a literary original, in this case a short story by the important early-twentieth-century writer Ogai Mori, about a brother and sister in eleventh-century Japan who, journeying to meet their exiled father, become separated from their mother and are sold into slavery. Mori’s tale is included in this book (as is a written version of an oral-folktale variation), so the interested reader has the chance to examine close-up what Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda preserved in their adaptation and what they altered. Two changes seem especially interesting and worth exploring.
The first concerns the place of music in the tale. At the end of Mori’s original story, the son, Zushio, is alerted to the truth that the blind, decrepit woman sitting on the ground in front of him is in fact his mother by the song she is singing, whose pathetic words include his own name and that of his sister:
My Anju, I yearn for you.
My Zushio, I yearn for you.
Little birds, if you are living still,
Fly, fly far away!
I will not chase you.
(“Little birds” here has a double meaning, referring both to the grain-stealing sparrows that the mother is employed to ward off with her long wooden pole and to her never-forgotten children.) In Mizoguchi’s movie, this tiny snatch of song is taken up by a kind of intuitive genius and transformed into the very core of the drama. For instead of our coming across the song for the first time at the moment of climax, we feel in the film that we are wonderfully coming back to it. Indeed, that it has never really left us. Introduced early into the texture of the movie, by Anju’s chance encounter with a peasant girl from Sado who heard it sung to her in childhood (in Mori’s tale, this character, named Kohagi, plays an altogether insignificant role), the refrain returns in a beautiful passage later in the film in which Anju and Zushio, alone in the forest glade, seem to hear their mother calling to them from across the ocean by means of the plaintive cooing of a turtledove.
“Anj . . . u . . . Zush . . . io!” The lingering cadence of this great lament is hard to forget. The instant telepathy conveyed through the song, joining mother and children across the water, serves to rescue Zushio and his sister from despondency and to give them renewed heart for battle. Its deployment takes us back to the great traditions of silent melodrama, to the cinema of Mizoguchi’s youth, where musical accompaniment made explicit the emotion contained in the image—bringing the work of art to quickness and life. Indeed, it is impossible to think of Sansho the Bailiff without its music: the film’s flute- and harp-driven score, by longtime collaborator Fumio Hayasaka, is one of the most delicate in Mizoguchi’s oeuvre.
Mizoguchi and Yoda’s second most daring alteration to the original was structural and psychological: it was to decide to make Zushio a slave to Sansho’s system not only in body but in spirit. In the short story, he is younger than his sister, Anju, whose uncomplicated protective goodness succeeds in conserving his innocence. Mizoguchi and Yoda, on the other hand, made him two or three years older than she is and contrived the innovation that, when puberty comes, he will be corrupted (if only temporarily) by his surroundings. In the film, Zushio becomes a “trusty”: the blackest of black souls, a bitter young man who can be relied upon to wield the branding iron and not flinch when applying it to weeping and panic-stricken slaves who have been caught trying to escape from the compound.
That whole new plot strand has consequences. Mori’s story is plainly, in its austere way, a study of redemption, in the sense that mother and son are eventually reunited in each other’s arms and come to understand the meaning of their destiny. Yet the force of this redemption, it seems to me, is immeasurably heightened in the movie by the consideration that Zushio, miraculously, has brought himself back from the damned. “Forgive me, Mother,” he cries, as he throws himself at her feet. To which the blind Tomiko replies, with her wonderful lucidity (now that she has grasped, through touch, that it is indeed Zushio who is kneeling in front of her): “What is there to forgive? Without knowing what you have done, I know that it is because you have listened to your father’s words that we are able, at last, to be here together.”
In its grandeur and distilled poignancy, this must be one of the most powerful moments in the history of cinema. The whole great scene is electrifying. As the British critic Gilbert Adair says, “Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films for which cinema exists—just as it perhaps exists for the sake of its last scene.” Reflecting upon its force leads one to ponder some of the wider themes and motivations that may lie behind this supreme work of art. Japan has often been (and continues to be) told that it has never sufficiently acknowledged blame for its disastrous military adventurism in the 1930s and 1940s. That may or may not be true, on an official level; it is certainly still a sore point in many contexts, especially, of course, among Japan’s closest neighbors. Yet in Sansho the Bailiff, it is hard not to see the lineaments of at least one private attempt to face up to, and to expiate, Japan’s wartime history. Set in the remote Heian past, the film also, unmistakably, refers to the Second World War—the cruelties of the medieval slave compound interchanging metaphorically and seamlessly with the yet more terrible cruelties of the modern concentration camps. The original story was written in 1915, and though the rest of the world was then in conflict, Japan at that time was only on the fringes of the firmament. There don’t seem to be any good grounds for believing that the specter of nationalist militarism was uppermost in Mori’s thoughts in writing the tale (if anything, he was rather nationalist himself). Yet the tale is prophetically relevant—even if it took Mizoguchi to see this.
The underlying response of the movie to these complicated ideological impulsions may be interpreted both politically and religiously. Seen from a political point of view, the film seems to expound the purest liberalism. Against tyranny it sets law; against captivity, freedom. The story takes place, as the opening caption informs us, in “an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings,” and charts imaginatively (perhaps even anachronistically) the first stirrings of protodemocratic consciousness. All viewers remember the words that Zushio’s father teaches him before being sent into exile: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness.” The lesson, beautifully shot, in one of the film’s finest scenes, is delivered over a miniature effigy of the goddess Kwannon that is then entrusted to the boy as his parting gift.
Kwannon is a Buddhist deity, and Sansho the Bailiff, we ought to remind ourselves, is also a religious film—one of the few truly great films about which such a claim may meaningfully be made. Religion, in the last resort, is arguably even more important than the politics. For though the message of compassion taught by Buddha is compatible with liberalism, in another way it cannot help seeming to trump it. It is impossible not to sense, in other words, that the message of the film is renunciation, and that in that renunciation, democratic activist politics are finally renounced too.
Renounced, but not forgotten. And definitely not vilified. It is a matter of appropriateness and timing. First free the slaves, then resign your titles. Still, however one looks at the matter, power and office are mistrusted, poverty and sacrifice vindicated. Throughout his career, sacrifice had been one of Mizoguchi’s great subjects. Here it emerges as the crux of one of the film’s most beautiful sequences, the episode in which Anju lays down her life so that her brother may escape to Kyoto. In our modern age, such a gesture is open, alas, to misunderstanding. Why should Anju offer herself up so nobly? Couldn’t they—shouldn’t they—have tried to escape together? Why, finally (a feminist might ask), her rather than him? These questions are all understandable, yet they probably miss the point. The “truth” of the sequence, and its sublime justification, resides in how it is expounded, from moment to moment.
First of all, there is the practical matter: somebody has to occupy the guard’s attention in order for the other to get a head start. It could be him; it could be her. But it is her plan—thought up in an instant—and this is the way she wants it (added to which, there is no getting away from the fact that Zushio is stronger and fleeter). We have to bear in mind that the whole affair takes place in a minute, and that right up to the moment it is happening, no one knows what the outcome will be. Does Anju believe her decision will mean certain death for her? Probably she does. Yet, in another way, such a fate is not so terrible after all, for sooner or later, all of them—her brother and father and mother—will meet up with her again in paradise. So the open gate, and the beckoning lake, are just confirmations from “on high” of the rightness and blessedness of her thinking. Once the decision is made, there is a wonderful triumph—a wonderful happiness—in her bearing. Indeed, the two or three shots that show Anju’s descent down the wooded hillside and into the water are surely among the most beautiful ever committed to celluloid: editing, framing, timing, shot duration are perfection itself. Seldom in film are we privileged to witness such concentrated, preternatural stillness. A delicate ellipsis spares us the sight of Anju’s actual moment of immersion. In compensation, the ripples that spread out from the center of the pond become the ripples of memory itself, and an emblem of the film’s profound thoughtfulness.
Mark Le Fanu teaches at University College London. He publishes in Sight & Sound and Positif, and is the author of two studies of classic filmmakers: The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (1987) and Mizoguchi and Japan (2005). This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2007 DVD release of Sansho the Bailiff.