Welcome to Akira Kurosawa info!  Log in or Register?

Film Club: Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi 1954)

sansho_the_bailiffThe October 2011 edition of our film club features yet another major classic of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshoo dayuu, 1954). A historical film set in feudal Japan, it explores topics such as inequality, freedom, family, and women’s role in society. The film also explores Japan’s feudalism, both in historic and contemporary terms.

Although Sansho the Bailiff is much celebrated, my admittedly limited research suggests that it is one of those film classics that has actually generated surprisingly little substantial discussion. This, of course, is all the better for us. As for why Sansho the Bailiff appears to have remained less discussed than some of its contemporaries, I do not really know, but it may have to do with its emotional, as opposed to intellectual, content. Or, it may well also be the result of the film coming out at a time when the Japanese film industry was producing an astonishing number of other high quality works.

Mizoguchi himself had in the previous two years filmed The Life of Oharu (1952), Gion Music Festival (1953) and Ugetsu (1953), all films of high quality, and the last of which we will be visiting in two months’ time. But perhaps even more astonishing is the actual year when Sansho the Bailiff came out, for it was something of an annus mirabilis for Japanese cinema. November 3 1953 had seen the release of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, and November 3 1954 would see the release of Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla. Between those two landmark films came out not only Sansho the Bailiff, but such other major works as Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Keisuke Kinoshita’s 24 Eyes and Mikio Naruse’s Late Chrysanthemums. That’s quite something.

Sansho the Bailiff is available on DVD in both North America and Europe.

Our next month’s film club film is Kurosawa’s 1950 work Scandal. For availability, see Kurosawa DVDs.


Discussion

  link

Ugetsu

The only substantive thing I’ve come across on Sansho the Bailiff is the very interesting commentary by Tony Rayns on the Masters of Cinema DVD. Its unfortunate that as a commentary its not footnoted, but its interesting that Rayns strongly implies that this film (along with Ugetsu Monogatari and Life of Oharu ) were at least partly motivated by jealousy at the success of Rashomon and his desire to put Kurosawa in his place. None of these films were seen as particularly good commercial prospects and in effect, Mizoguchi made his contemporary films as compensation. Rayns also indicates that there was a lot of studio interference with Sansho Dayu (sadly, it isn’t clear where the interference lay), which questions the assumption by many western critics that Mizoguchi could be considered an auteur on a level with Kurosawa and Ozu. it seems that only the latter two actually did have a creative free hand.

The other recent item I’ve read on Sansho Dayu was by David Thomson in ‘Have you seen….’ (I was browsing in a bookshop, I didn’t buy it), where he as usual compares Rashomon unfavorably to Sansho and Ugetsu Monogatari.

  link

Vili Maunula

The Tony Rayns introductory video on the Masters of Cinema DVD is indeed very interesting. He says fairly little about the film, but does provide excellent context. I could listen to him talk for hours.

I also finally found the time to watch Sansho today (it’s been a crazy couple of months), and I must say that I still don’t really like it. It just feels unnecessarily one-dimensional and lacking of subtlety, even for what is essentially a melodrama based on a fable. As I also greatly dislike the acting and the film’s pace (my re-edit would begin by cutting off the first half an hour altogether), it is an understatement to say that I find it difficult to be drawn into the film.

The imagery certainly is beautiful at times, and I can on some level understand the film’s lure. It just isn’t for me, I’m afraid. And even more disappointingly, I cannot even seem to come up with anything interesting to say or discuss about the film — my overall reaction to the film is so muted.

I am a little puzzled that anyone should wish to compare Sansho with Rashomon. I would say that there is very little in common between the two works, other than the era.

  link

Ugetsu

I am a little puzzled that anyone should wish to compare Sansho with Rashomon. I would say that there is very little in common between the two works, other than the era.

It is a little puzzling, but its something I’ve come across quite a few times. I think, to be fair, Thomson sees Sansho Dayo as part of a trilogy including Ugetsu Monogatari and The Life of Oharu. He (and others) seems to think that these films deal (as with Rashomon) with shifting notions of reality or truth, although personally I only see that in Ugetsu Monogatari.

As I also greatly dislike the acting and the film’s pace (my re-edit would begin by cutting off the first half an hour altogether), it is an understatement to say that I find it difficult to be drawn into the film.

What did you dislike about the acting? I thought the actor playing the older Zushio was quite weak, but I thought Kyoko Kagawa as Anju and Eitaro Shindo as Sansho were pretty good. But I think all the actors were hamstrung by a very literal script.

And even more disappointingly, I cannot even seem to come up with anything interesting to say or discuss about the film — my overall reaction to the film is so muted.

I do agree with you that its not a film that really lends itself to discussion in the way most Kurosawa or Ozu films do. I think that most Mizoguchi films are in many ways lacking the emotional and intellectual depth of some of his contemporaries. In most cases (there are exceptions), I think his films are one-dimensional (although often a very beautiful dimension), with a pretty simplistic look at how society works. With the exception of Ugetsu Monogatari, which I think is a very sophisticated and wonderful film, I think Mizoguchi’s films are only really ‘interesting’ thematically when he examines womens lives in detail in his ensemble films. And in those cases, the interest comes from the characters.

But what I find most interesting in Rayns comments is the strong suggestion that Mizoguchi was motivated by jealousy of Kurosawa and that he quite deliberately played on notions of eastern exoticism in order to gain kudos on the west. To an extent I think he was successful, in that in the late 1950’s it seems that quite a few critics and film makers liked the notion of Mizoguchi as the ‘real’ Japanese genius in contrast to the crowd pleasing Kurosawa. But I wonder if the decision of the Venice Film Festival to only award him the Silver Bear means that they suspected that his films lacked real depth and quality.

  link

Vili Maunula

Thomson sees Sansho Dayo as part of a trilogy

In this case, it is more difficult for me to comment, as it’s been quite a while since I saw Ugetsu, and I’m not sure if I have ever seen The Life of Oharu.

I wrote earlier that there is very little in common between Sansho and Rashomon, but you could of course force a post-war reading on both. Martinez I think did a fairly good job in suggesting that Rashomon is an expression of Japan’s guilt from the war, and one could perhaps follow along those same lines with Sansho, at least up to a point.

What did you dislike about the acting?

As you mentioned, the actor playing the older Zushio was weak, and as an added bonus I constantly kept thinking about the footballer Carlos Tévez when he was on the screen. The two move very similarly.

Unlike you, I also found Shindo’s performance as Sansho quite poor and one-dimensional. Granted, that feeling may also have been influenced by my brain making an inappropriate connection, as the Sansho character kept reminding me of the Finnish comedian Spede Pasanen (the picture on Wikipedia should pretty much explain why), which is a fairly unfortunate connection.

I also felt that Kinuyo Tanaka over-acted as the wife, as did most other characters, unless they were the opposite and rather expressionless (as with Taro). Kyoko Kagawa I cannot really fault, though.

I’m not necessarily blaming the actors though. The script didn’t exactly seem to give them a lot of room to play with.

But what I find most interesting in Rayns comments is the strong suggestion that Mizoguchi was motivated by jealousy of Kurosawa and that he quite deliberately played on notions of eastern exoticism in order to gain kudos on the west.

Indeed, it is an interesting claim to make. So much so that I ended up ordering two books on Mizoguchi today (Tadao Sato’s Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema and Mark Le Fanu’s Mizoguchi and Japan) pretty much to see what the take on this matter is in those books, or if they mention it at all. And, of course, to learn a little bit more about Mizoguchi before we watch Ugetsu, which I remember being quite a stunning film.

  link

Ugetsu

Vili

Martinez I think did a fairly good job in suggesting that Rashomon is an expression of Japan’s guilt from the war, and one could perhaps follow along those same lines with Sansho, at least up to a point.

This is a very interesting notion, one that deserves some thought. The aspect of the story that puzzled me is why Zushio was so keen to press ahead with a complete amnesty for the slaves, despite knowing this would only be a futile gesture, as he would lose all his powers and, presumably, someone else would come back later and restore the slave system. Surely the more productive approach would have been a more subtle one of using his powers to slowly undermine Sansho and other slave owners, while freeing slaves who were under his direct control. He seemed more concerned with making a kamakaze gesture rather than forcing real change.

The two move very similarly.

Good call! Actually, they both refuse to move similarly too.

Unlike you, I also found Shindo’s performance as Sansho quite poor and one-dimensional.

I don’t think the script allowed him to be anything other than a stock bad guy, so I’m not sure what he could have done apart from hammed it up a little.

Kyoko Kagawa I cannot really fault, though.

I can’t think of any film that wasn’t the better for having her in a role, however small.

  link

Vili Maunula

The aspect of the story that puzzled me is why Zushio was so keen to press ahead with a complete amnesty for the slaves, despite knowing this would only be a futile gesture, as he would lose all his powers and, presumably, someone else would come back later and restore the slave system.

He doesn’t come across as the brightest of the bunch, to be honest. This was a plot point that bothered me as well, but then I realised that we are talking about a character here who, as his first act as the governor, goes to see his father’s tomb in a remote part of the country, rather than hurrying up to rescue his sister (who he thinks is still alive). Either the slavery wasn’t all that bad after all, or Zushio has rather strange priorities.

It is also a little puzzling that after being told by his sister that together they will get caught (which I took to mean that she would only slow him down if they escaped together), he picks up the dying woman to slow him down.

And as you say, Zushio’s actions as the governor probably amount to nothing, and would in a real life scenario have made the slaves’ situation even worse in the long run after Zushio’s follower takes over.

The sister’s decision to kill herself is also a little strange. Yes, the guards could probably make her talk if they caught her, but what could she really reveal about Zushio’s whereabouts? The only thing that I can think of is the piece of information that their mother is probably on a specific island, so Zushio must ultimately be heading there. But is this really a piece of information to go and kill yourself for? Unless you are afraid of the torture itself, which she may well have been.

It also bothers me that of the two she is the one who has the will to live and to find their mother, but it is her good-for-nothing brother who, thanks to her insistence, survives. I wonder if that’s meant as a “feminist” statement of some sort.

And why did the two kids never once under Sansho mention to anyone that they were of noble blood? Surely a good businessman like Sansho would have found a way to contact a family member and get a ransom / finder’s fee with which he could have bought more and better slaves. But apparently the kids never thought of this. And neither did their mother.

I know that I am scrutinising the plot way too closely for a film which is ultimately a fable, but the film never quite succeeds in making me want to suspend my disbelief.

The two move very similarly.

Good call! Actually, they both refuse to move similarly too.

Haha! So true!

  link

Ugetsu

Vili

It is also a little puzzling that after being told by his sister that together they will get caught (which I took to mean that she would only slow him down if they escaped together), he picks up the dying woman to slow him down.

As plot holes go, its a pretty big one. The only possible explanations i could come up with for this is that she thought that as a young couple, they would be too obvious – a single man could disappear more easily in the crowd when he reached the city (assuming the old woman wouldn’t live long). It may also have been implicit that she intended to provide a decoy to help him escape (or to at least spin a good story to delay the chase). Zushio obviously wasn’t the brightest, so didn’t really think through what his sister was doing. But as he was all too aware that being branded on the face is one of the likely punishments for her, you’d have thought he’d have at least put up a bit of an argument over it.

It also bothers me that of the two she is the one who has the will to live and to find their mother, but it is her good-for-nothing brother who, thanks to her insistence, survives. I wonder if that’s meant as a “feminist” statement of some sort.

Rayns questioned out loud what drew Mizoguchi to this particular story. I’ve read it elsewhere (I can’t remember where at the moment), that Mizoguchi never got over the guilt that his sister had to become a geisha in order to pay for his education – she sacrificed her life (or at least, whatever life she would have had) for him. So perhaps the notion of female sacrifice in order to allow a man to ‘do good’ was a key element for him. But as you say, it doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of plot.

  link

lawless

Adding another voice here. I’m glad I took Vili’s off-thread advice to watch this, because I liked it more than either of you did, though I agree with Vili that the first half-hour, while beautiful, wonderful, and imo well-acted, threw the pacing off something fierce. The plot holes didn’t bother me as much because I think some of them make sense in context and because overall the emotional arc of the story, my appreciation for the script, which didn’t make me wince, the cinematography, settings, and music, and the social critique underlying the movie swept me up in their wake, obscuring the movie’s weaknesses.

I liked this movie better than 47 Ronin, which is, imo, too static and talky and doesn’t deal with some of the most dramatic aspects of the underlying story. I’m coming to the conclusion that I prefer Mizoguchi to Ozu, partly because I love the way he frames his shots and partly because I probably prefer jidai-geki to contemporary movies (I forget what the Japanese term for it is), but mostly because Ozu movies seem to be about the individual characters in their individual situations and less about Japanese social and political structure, whereas Mizoguchi (and Kurosawa) deal with those overarching issues all the time.

As for comparisons to Rashomon, other than some of the settings and the time period, I don’t see one. But I enjoyed this movie more than Rashomon, which, as some of you may remember, is one of my least favorite Kurosawa movies and is definitely my least favorite of his masterworks.

If Mizoguchi engaged in deliberate exoticization, I didn’t see it here — all of the exoticization was specific to the period in which the movie was set.

More to come on the other thread.

  link

lawless

Now that I’ve watched the extras, it’s too bad you don’t have the Criterion release, because the commentary by Jeffrey Angles and interview with the 1st AD on the movie, whose name I don’t remember off the top of my head, sorry, answers some of your questions. Angles believes that if the children revealed their identity, they would have been killed to hide Sansho’s mistake in purchasing slaves from the upper classes. And the first AD said that the way the move was changed at the studio’s behest was in emphasizing the story of Anbu and Zushio at the expense of an exploration of the system of slavery and the character of Sansho. But it wasn’t as though Mizoguchi had no clout; he mentions, as one of the benefits of working with Mizoguchi, that when they asked for 200 extras and the stuido balked, all they had to say was that the old man said it was necessary.

Angles’ commentary focuses on the changes Mizoguchi and his screenwriters made both to the original legend as it was handed down in various guises and the children’s story on which the movie is directly based, as well as the changes from the screenplay to the finished movie. Mizoguchi eliminated all supernatural aspects from the story, so his version is the most “realistic” of them all and seems to be intended as a commentary on society.

Ugetsu said:

Mizoguchi was motivated by jealousy of Kurosawa and that he quite deliberately played on notions of eastern exoticism in order to gain kudos on the west.

But where do you see him doing that in this film? All the exoticism seems to me to be dictated either by the story or by the period.

Another extra is an interview with Kyoko Kagawa, who talks about the way Mizoguchi directed his actors. It’s not true that he gave them no guidance, but he didn’t give a lot of guidance, focusing more on the effect he wanted than on how to achieve it, which he left up to them. Even though she found it taxing, particularly as a fledgling actor, she says that she learned how to act organically from working with Mizoguchi.

  link

Ugetsu

Lawless

And the first AD said that the way the move was changed at the studio’s behest was in emphasizing the story of Anbu and Zushio at the expense of an exploration of the system of slavery and the character of Sansho.

Thats quite interesting, because Rayns says that it was Mizoguchi who favoured focusing on the children, to the astonishment of his scriptwriters who knew that he loathed children. Both versions may have been true of course, its possible that Mizoguchi asked for a script based on the childrens lives because he knew thats what the studio wanted.

Lawless

But it wasn’t as though Mizoguchi had no clout; he mentions, as one of the benefits of working with Mizoguchi, that when they asked for 200 extras and the stuido balked, all they had to say was that the old man said it was necessary.

My understanding (and most of this comes from Rayns), is that he did have enormous clout as maybe the most famous and popular of all directors at the time. The problem was that the studios seemed to think him as somewhat flawed as a character, based on his personal misadventures in the pre-war years (including an incident where he was stabbed by a prostitute), and so his artistic judgement was always questioned. He seems to have had to do a bargain on the lines of ‘one film for the studio, one for me’, except that according to Rayns, even the ‘ones for me’, were often subject to a lot of interference. It may be that he simply wasn’t a strong enough character to stand up to the execs, in the way Kurosawa, Ozu and maybe Naruse could.

Lawless

But where do you see him doing that in this film? All the exoticism seems to me to be dictated either by the story or by the period.

Rayns isn’t specific, and I think its implied that his evidence for this comes from the historical record, rather than an analysis of the film. At the top of my head I can’t think of any one scene or passage that falls into the category of ‘deliberate exoticism’ and of course what Mizoguchi thought of as the type of scene that would appeal to western critics or audiences isn’t necessarily accurate or correct – the Japanese film industry was notoriouis for its inability to judge correctly non-Japanese tastes (as demonstrated by Mizoguchi’s own rather embarrassing Yokihi, a film intended for general Asian audiences). I would guess that the decision to downgrade magical elements in the original story may well have been influenced by the notion that foreign markets wouldn’t be interested.

  link

cocoskyavitch

Ugetsu said:

The only substantive thing I’ve come across on Sansho the Bailiff is the very interesting commentary by Tony Rayns on the Masters of Cinema DVD

but, I urge you all to look at BFI’s interesting monograph here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49445

I think issues of Western influence, Mizoguchi’s Post-War musings, and the development of his poetic compositions (interesting as a nod to “Japanese-ness for a Western audience!) are addressed very clearly and quite helpfully.

The first two paragraphs address Sansho Dayu.

Leave a comment

Log in or Register to post a comment!