Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff

Based on a short story by Mori Ogai, Sansho the Bailiff is the story about a governor’s family being torn apart after his exile where the wife is sold into prostitution while her children are sold into slavery under the cruelty of a bailiff. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi and screenplay by Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda, the film is an exploration of how a woman and her children endure hardships in the wake of a tumultuous period in Japan’s history. Starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, and Eitaro Shindo. Sansho the Bailiff is a harrowing yet powerful drama from Kenji Mizoguchi.

Set during the Heian period in Japan where lawlessness was running rampant among thieves and bandits while slavery was also happening. The film revolves around two kids, whose father was a kind governor, had to endure the cruelty of slavery under a steward known as Sansho the Bailiff (Eitaro Shindo). With their mother sold to prostitution and their father exiled for not giving in to feudal lords, the children become young adults as the son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) tries to repress himself through work while Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) is clinging to her father’s words for mercy. Yet, it would take something that would finally prompt the children to escape where sacrifices are made but also the chance to set things right in a world ravaged by lawlessness.

The screenplay by Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda explores a world where children who live in a refined background have to deal with not just harsh realities but a world where things can be bleak. The story begins with how their father is exiled as it moves back-and-forth where the young Zushio (Naoki Fujima) and Anju (Keiko Enami) are walking with their mother Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their servant Ubatake (Chieko Naniwa) to find shelter. Notably as the flashbacks reveal the words Zushio’s father instills his son words of mercy and kindness so that humans can find hope in a bleak world. Yet, the words of the governor would be put to the test when the family is tricked by a priestess (Kikue Mori) who has the mother taken to an island to become a courtesan while the children are eventually sold to the very brutal Sansho the Bailiff.

Both the young Zushio and Anju realize a world where they have to be beaten if they don’t do their work as only some slaves and Sansho’s son Taro (Akitake Kono) become sympathetic as the latter later leaves his father’s home after giving the two kids words of what they have to endure before the time is right to escape. Still, the words of their father and Taro’s advice would be suppressed by Zushio after ten years of slavery as he loses hope while becoming accepting of Sansho’s rule where he becomes just as cruel towards the slaves. Anju meanwhile, is still clinging to that idea of kindness where it would be a song sung by a slave that would raise Anju’s awareness that her mother is still alive as it would also restore Zushio’s own faith. The third act would be about Zushio’s journey to appeal to a chief advisor about slavery where Zushio would reclaim some prestige but he realizes that it wouldn’t be enough to repair the damage over what happened to his family.

Kenji Mizoguchi’s direction is very engaging for the way he explores a family being splintered by a world where lawlessness is rampant. Mizoguchi’s direction is filled with gorgeous imagery of some of the Japanese locations but also mix it with an air of bleakness for what is happening in that world where people are pushed into slavery. Mizoguchi infuses a lot of wide shots as well as some medium shots and close-ups to capture a world where things are bleak while there is an element of hope somewhere. There is also some melodrama that is played out in the direction for the way the characters deal with their situation where some slaves attempt to escape only to be branded by hot steel as punishment. It’s a world where it’s run by this steward who has connections to the government and is a man with a lot of power.

The direction also has Mizoguchi making statements about this horrific period as he uses the Zushio character to fulfill the role that his father once played for the people in his land. Yet, he would have to endure things where even though he can make a difference for those who are helpless. It isn’t enough since the world is still bound by some lawlessness as well as the fact that there are those who won’t be able to enjoy the happiness of freedom. Even as Zushio is craving for something that is far more valuable than some title as he is still motivated to find his mother. There is nothing heavy-handed that Mizoguchi is saying as he presents it in a simple yet somber manner to reveal something where humanity was losing its way and how those managed to regain some hope. Overall, Mizoguchi creates very heartbreaking yet exhilarating film about humanity and its plea for mercy.

Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa does amazing work with the film‘s black-and-white photography to capture some of the beauty of the Japanese locations including its mountains and beaches along with some chilling interiors in night thanks to some of the lighting by Kenichi Okamoto to play up that mix of hope and despair. Editor Mitsuzo Miyata does excellent work with the editing from the rhythmic cutting in some of the film‘s flashback scenes early in the film to some methodical yet effective cuts for some of the film‘s dramatic moments. Art directors Kisaku Ito and Kozaburo Nakajima, with set decorator Yuichiro Yamamoto, do brilliant work with the set pieces from the house of Sansho the Bailiff to the palaces of the chief advisor and the old house that Zushio and Anju lived as children.

The costumes by Yoshio Ueno and Yoshimi Shima are wonderful for the sense of prestige that the kids had early on in their robes only to then look in tatters as they become slaves. The makeup by Masanori Kobayashi is nice for the way some of the courtesans look in scenes where Tamaki has to look the part to play the role of a prostitute. The sound by Iwao Otani is terrific for the sense of chaos that is displayed in some of scenes where Sansho‘s men try to attack foes as well as a simple sense of intimacy in scenes involving nature. The film’s music by Fumio Hayasaka is just fantastic for its somber yet entrancing score filled with lush orchestral arrangements mixed in with traditional Japanese percussions and string instruments to create a sense of melancholia that is played out for the film.

The film’s cast is marvelous as it features some memorable small roles from Chieko Naniwa as the family servant Ubatake, Kikue Mori as an opportunistic priestess, Akira Shimizu as a slave trader who sells Zushio and Anju to Sansho, Bontaro Miake as Sansho’s lead general Kichiji, Ken Mitsuda as the chief advisor Zushio tries to appeal to, and Masao Shimizu as Anju and Zushio’s father who is a man of great idealism only to be exiled by a world of lawlessness. In the roles of the young Zushio and Anju, Naoki Fujima and Keiko Enami are excellent in their respective roles as siblings dealing with the harsh circumstances they’re put upon. Atikake Kono is superb as Taro, Sansho’s son who is horrified by his father’s cruelty and discovery of who the kids really are as he gives them advice on how to deal with the fate that is put upon them.

Eitaro Shindo is great as the very powerful and terrifying titular role as a man who is always kind to men of power while being very horrific to his slaves where he would make them endure some of the worst punishment known to mankind. Kinuyo Tanaka is wonderful as Zushio and Anju’s mother Tamaki who tries to ensure their father’s words in them as kids only to deal with her own cruelty as a prostitute as she sings a chilling song that would eventually reach them. Finally, there’s the duo of Kyoko Kagawa and Yoshiaki Hanayagi in their respective roles as Anju and Zushio. Kagawa displays a sense of grace to her performance as a young woman clinging to hope as it’s a very intoxicating performance to watch. Hanayagi is remarkable as the older Zushio who has nearly given up hope only when he realizes the opportunity to escape as he tries to come to terms with what he’s lost as well as the desire to make a difference in a terrifying world.

Sansho the Bailiff is an incredible film from Kenji Mizoguchi that explores the horrors of humanity and the desires for a few to instill hope in a world ravaged by evil. Featuring the mesmerizing performances of Eitaro Shindo, Atikake Kono, Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, and Kyoko Kagawa. It’s a film that is quite harrowing and at times can be full of despair but it is balanced with the idea that hope will always come as it’s a film that unveils the power of humanity and how it can endure such cruelty. In the end, Sansho the Bailiff is a phenomenal film from Kenji Mizoguchi.

Kenji Mizoguchi Films: (Tokyo March) - (The Water Magician) - (Aizo Toge) - (The Downfall of Osen) - Osaka Elegy - (Sisters of the Gion) - (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums) - The 47 Ronin - (Utamaro and his Five Women) - (The Love of the Actress Sumako) - (Portrait of Madame Yuki) - (Miss Oyu) - (The Lady of Musashino) - The Life of Oharu - Ugetsu - (A Geisha) - (The Woman in the Rumor) - The Crucified Lovers - (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei) - (Tales of Taira Clan) - (Street of Shame)

© thevoid99 2013

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