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Sansho the Bailiff: A Humanist or Buddhist film?

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    Ugetsu

    A subject that has come up frequently in discussions on previous films are the precise meaning of frequently used terms such as ‘humanism’ and ‘feminism’ etc., when applied to mid-20th Century Japanese films. I think we more or less agree that Kurosawa’s films can be described as ‘humanist’ in that he takes a view of human nature that relies as much on Western enlightenment tradition as Japanese traditions, one which emphasizes the love of humanity and the use of reason to advance human welfare.

    When doing a google search on Sansho the Bailiff, two of the most prominent articles to pop up are both by the film critic Alexander Jacoby – one in Sight and Sound, the other in Senses of Cinema. Both essays describe Mizoguchi as a humanist, and not just a humanist, but one who was ‘much more profound than Kurosawa‘. The basis of this seems to be comments from contemporary western writers who saw films like Sansho and Ugetsu Monogatari as expounding a sort of universal human value, emphasizing the worth of the individual over ideology.

    And yet, as the same writer notes, Mizoguchi at this time had embraced Nichiren Buddhism, and the film is clear it its support for a Buddhist worldview, one which (in this context) seems to revolve around a weary acceptance of the inevitability of struggle and pain in this life. Yet this worldview is in complete opposition to just about every definition of humanism I am aware of, most of which focus on a secular worldview, and the (western) enlightenment philosophy of reason and human progress. The writer seems to acknowledge the contradiction when he says that:

    If that film, as noted above, invokes a Buddhist goddess, that is ironically in the service of a liberal humanist philosophy.

    But I don’t see this as convincing at all. He does later on acknowledge the criticisms (which I would generally agree with) of the use of the term ‘liberal humanism’ in discussing films of the period:

    In the intervening decades critics such as Noel Burch and Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro have argued that western writers in the 1950s, viewing Japanese cinema through a distorting lens of liberal humanism, were approaching the material from an inappropriate standpoint. But the truth is more complex than this. In the 1950s, as Japanese films began to achieve international recognition, film-makers including Mizoguchi, Kurosawa Akira and later Ichikawa Kon deliberately opted for subject matter and styles influenced by the west, knowing that these would appeal to a foreign audience.

    (leaving to one side the notion that Kurosawa ever tried to appeal to a foreign audience, which I think has been quite categorically rejected by most writers on the subject).

    But the essential point seems to me here that Jacoby is arguing Sansho Dayu should be seen as a humanist film, one which, while echoing Buddhist precepts, is essentially about the need for human progress and a rejection of Feudalistic notions of duty. In support of this, the notion of the importance of human empathy and compassion is clear in the film, as well as an unambiguous opposition to slavery and any notion that someones background makes them less worthy of respect or human rights than anyone else. This much is clear from the film, and is something that most religions (including of course Buddhism) would agree with liberal humanists.

    To go deeper into how a ‘Buddhist’ film would differ from a ‘liberal humanist’ film I think we would have to look at where these philosophies would unambiguously disagree. Leaving to one side questions about the existence or not of God (and from my limited knowledge of Nichiren Buddhism, it puts greater emphasis on the reality of a ‘God’ than the more familiar Zen forms of the religion), the clear difference would be in the Buddhist view (as expounded in the Four Noble Truths) of suffering being an inevitable consequence of life, which can only be escaped when you can cast off the cravings and distractions of the world. In other words, it is an internal path, and one in which changing the world is seen as a secondary element to living a ‘true’ life. I simplify of course, and you need only look at monks such as the Dalai Lama to see that Buddhism is not incompatible with political acts aimed at alleviating real wrongs in the world.

    Humanism, on the contrary, would reject (or consider as very secondary), the internal world of spirituality as a way of avoiding suffering – again, at the expense of simplification, a true humanist would see such an approach as either utterly wrong headed, narcissistic, or at worst a cynical attempt to deflect peoples attentions from the ‘real’ causes of suffering. Humanism is about using human agency, and rational analysis, to solving real human needs and, in short, making the world a better place.

    In Sansho the Bailiff we see echos of both approaches. The father and son both adhere to a strictly spiritual philosophical worldview, and refer constantly to the goddess of compassion. The film is infused with the notion of suffering and sacrifice as an end in itself, as an inevitable part of life. But it also shows the son acting politically and positively – in seeking to save his family and free the slaves through the law (in contrast to Sansho’s son, who seems to have abandoned any hope of change, seeking instead a spiritual life).

    It seems to me you can make an argument for the film being either Buddhist or Humanist, but as at root these philosophies are not compatible – eventually you have to choose spiritual or political paths to improving humanity – the film ultimately cannot be both. Jacoby seems to be arguing for the humanism of the film, but for me the film is ultimately Buddhist in philosophy and theme – the overwhelming sense I get from the film is an acceptance of suffering, of a rejection of the notion of human progress (while not rejecting the occasional act against evil).

    It may be, of course, that Mizoguchi was trying to reconcile his contradictory beliefs – or it may be that a philosophical confusion at the heart of the film was the result of outside interference, or his perceived need to satisfy the needs of the studio or his foreign audience. But for me this is a key and unambiguous contrast between Mizoguchi and Kurosawa – Kurosawa always sought a rational means ‘forward’ for humanity – even while acknowledging that often this was doomed to failure (and in Ran, he seems to have ultimately despaired of it). On the evidence of this film, I wonder if there is any basis for seeing Mizoguchi in any way as a humanist – his worldview was explicitly spiritual and religious, with his empathy for people and opposition to a feudalistic worldview arising from his religious and philosophical beliefs.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu

    I am puzzled why you believe that a person, or a movie, can’t be humanist and Buddhist at the same time. I’m not at all convinced that they’re as incompatible as you indicate, and think you’re setting up a false dichotomy.

    For one thing, although I’m not that familiar with Nichiren Buddhism, Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddha himself considered worship of a deity irrelevant at best, and a hindrance at worst, to achieving enlightenment precisely because he feared the kind of rigid formalism and superstition that such belief systems engendered. The fact that many forms of Buddhism, including, from what the Wikipedia article says, Nichiren Buddhism, and from what I know from research I’ve done, Pure Land Buddhism, could fall into those categories is, for this purpose, beside the point. At any rate, while Buddhism may involve a level of veneration amounting to worship for certain teachers and figures like Kannon/Guan Yin (my icon is a version of her that appears in the manga and anime series Saiyuki, a reimagining of the Chinese folk novel Journey to the West), it nevertheless has no concept of God. So in that sense, even though it is a religion (although the core of it is more a philosophy or way of life — something I’d also say about Taoism and Confucianism), it is more secular than you are giving it credit for.

    Buddhism is not just about personal growth and enlightenment. It is also about compassion — part of the Eightfold Path to enlightenment — and one of the places where Buddhism and humanism intersect.

    You seem to be analyzing Sansho Dayu as if it were a philosophical treatise. I read the article you’re criticizing is saying that the movie’s outlook is humanist but it was influenced by Mizoguchi’s (and Japanese) Buddhism.

    While Buddhism isn’t the easiest thing in the world to understand, especially for those of use suffused with the Western Judeo-Christian tradition, a lot of the barriers are linguistic. While reading meta about Saiyuki, some of whose themes depend on an understanding of Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism (several of the characters, including the leader of the quest that is at the heart of the story, are high-ranking Buddhist monks), I came across an explanation that made a lot more sense. The meaning of the Pali/Sanskrit word dukkha, which is usually translated “suffering,” would in this context be more accurately translated “impermanent,” “conditional,” or “imperfect.” It is our chasing after certainty in an uncertain world that is the cause of our unhappiness. See this link.

    I’ve only seen two Mizoguchi films, but I think calling him “much more profound than Kurosawa,” as the article you mention does, is a load of crap. Perhaps, though, you have let your reaction to that kind of puffery lead you astray.

    It’s fine not to like Mizoguchi as much as you did at first, or at all, just like it’s fine that I find Ozu’s movies dull. That doesn’t make them bad movies; that just makes them movies that don’t appeal to me. We can all agree that they are talented, even great directors, with particular strengths and areas they’re not so strong or interested in, and which ones we like better than others is to a large degree dependent on how their strengths and interests line up with what appeals to us as individuals.

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    Vili Maunula

    This is an excellent question Ugetsu, although one that I find difficult to answer. “Humanist” as a term is, I think, a little too slippery. It gets tossed around quite liberally. The same goes for Buddhism.

    For me, a purely “Buddhist film” would have to be something that included a specific message to explicitly promote or celebrate Buddhism (cf. “Christian film”), and I don’t think that Sansho is that. It is, however, a product of its culture, so I wouldn’t deny that Buddhism must have had a huge impact on it in a number of ways, most of which I don’t even notice or understand.

    As for humanism, it does at first sound a little strange label for Sansho. Zushio as its highly impulsive main character doesn’t really promote the kind of rational and empirical approach to things that humanism, to the best of my understanding, is largely defined by. However, it is true that Mizoguchi’s version of the story is far more secular than many of the alternative versions. If my memory serves well, the Buddhist relic that Zushio carries with him has a much larger and far more supernatural role in most of the alternative versions of the tale.

    I have also wondered about the manner in which the film begins, with the subtitles (at least) telling us that the story is set in an era “when mankind has not yet awakened as human beings”. Compare this to how the film ends, with Zushio explaining that they now have only each other and asking for his mother’s forgiveness for having given up his title in order to follow his father’s teachings. To which the mother replies that this has been the right thing to do. The teachings in question, of course, are quite similar to basic humanist values: all men are equal, you should care for others, and remember that everyone is entitled to their happiness. You could argue that these are the “human values” that the film at the beginning says are still missing from the majority of the population, and Sansho then is a story of a “humanist awakening” of some sorts, which rejects religious spirituality by diminishing the role of Zushio’s religious relic. So, perhaps it is a humanist film after all.

    In any case, and irrespective of whether Sansho is a Buddhist film or a humanist film or neither, I don’t agree with the suggestion that it couldn’t (on a purely theoretical level) actually be both. While the two — depending on what is meant by the terms — may be logically contradictory, I believe that one of the great abilities of art is to forget about logic for a moment and allow for contradictions and ambiguities to exist in a fairly satisfactory manner. Moreover, I don’t believe that the question “what was Mizoguchi’s intention with Sansho?” is any more interesting or relevant than the question “what is your interpretation of Sansho?” This, of course, allows the work to be pretty much anything.

    Having said this, for me Sansho of course rather fails to evoke those contradictions and ambiguities that make art so interesting. Although I must say that your raising the question of the role of Buddhism and humanism in the film has made the work more interesting to me.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I am puzzled why you believe that a person, or a movie, can’t be humanist and Buddhist at the same time. I’m not at all convinced that they’re as incompatible as you indicate, and think you’re setting up a false dichotomy.

    I don’t deny that in certain respects Buddhism and Humanism are compatible – I was reading a few of the obituaries of Steve Jobs for example, and few made much of the apparent weirdness of a relentlessly successful billionaire who made his money on building beautiful, but ultimately inessential things, also being a passionate zen Buddhist. On a superficial level, any number of philosophies can be compatible – I knew a Thai American woman who managed to be a very devout catholic, while also maintaining an elaborate buddhist shrine in her home which she prayed to nightly, and she found my surprise at this in turn, very surprising.

    My point is that while humanism and buddhism (and judeo-christianity and any number of other religions, theologies and philosophies) have many points of agreement (at least in theory), especially when it comes to human dignity and notions of fairness, at core they are different because they are… well… different. And my broader point in relation to this:

    You seem to be analyzing Sansho Dayu as if it were a philosophical treatise. I read the article you’re criticizing is saying that the movie’s outlook is humanist but it was influenced by Mizoguchi’s (and Japanese) Buddhism.

    is not that I am analyzing it as if it were a philosophical treatise, but that so many mainstream critics do exactly this, and so set up false dichotomies between Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, or for that matter between different genres.

    I don’t wish to single out those articles I linked to in particular, I understand that sometimes phrases like ‘humanism’ and ‘feminism’ are used more as a useful shorthand than a literal description (and I’m guilty of that myself I know), but I think this is an example of the sort of intellectual dead end that a focus on an auteur theory can lead us down – i.e. having described certain film makers and films as ‘humanist’, we then start ranking them on a sort of ‘who’s the best humanist’ type scale. Its annoying, but much worse, it strongly suggests that the entire direction of analysis and criticism is very wrongheaded, leading us to fundamentally misunderstand the film.

    Sorry if this reads a little confusingly, I’m still trying to make up my own mind what all this means!

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    In any case, and irrespective of whether Sansho is a Buddhist film or a humanist film or neither, I don’t agree with the suggestion that it couldn’t (on a purely theoretical level) actually be both. While the two — depending on what is meant by the terms — may be logically contradictory, I believe that one of the great abilities of art is to forget about logic for a moment and allow for contradictions and ambiguities to exist in a fairly satisfactory manner. Moreover, I don’t believe that the question “what was Mizoguchi’s intention with Sansho?” is any more interesting or relevant than the question “what is your interpretation of Sansho?” This, of course, allows the work to be pretty much anything.

    Its a good point, and of course you are right that we should be focusing on the work and what it means to us, not trying to read the director or scriptwriters mind. I think the broader point though is whether the ambiguity (which I think is central to almost all interesting art) is due to the complexity of the work, or simply because the artist had only a very superficial notion of what he was dealing with. We don’t, for example, praise the ambiguity and moral complexity of Stephen Seagal movies because the hero gives us a lecture on saving the planet and cherishing people after he’s spent the previous 90 minutes incinerating and blowing up bad guys. Not that I wish to compare Mizoguchi to Seagal (the latter of course was much better at martial arts), but I think we should be distinguishing between the genuinely complex and the merely confused.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I think the broader point though is whether the ambiguity (which I think is central to almost all interesting art) is due to the complexity of the work, or simply because the artist had only a very superficial notion of what he was dealing with.

    True. Although I am not sure if it actually makes any great difference in the end, as long as an interpretation of the work turns out to be interesting. The point then being, I suppose, that well planned and executed complexity simply has a better chance of receiving an interesting interpretation than Seagal films.

    The other point, I think, is that when people use complex terms like “Buddhist”, “humanist” or “feminist”, they would do a favour for all of us if they defined their use of those terms. Otherwise the result is, as you mention, a situation where works and artists get labelled wrongly, that labels stick, and then we start ranking and comparing things with faulty labels.

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    lawless

    Vili:

    In any case, and irrespective of whether Sansho is a Buddhist film or a humanist film or neither, I don’t agree with the suggestion that it couldn’t (on a purely theoretical level) actually be both. While the two — depending on what is meant by the terms — may be logically contradictory, I believe that one of the great abilities of art is to forget about logic for a moment and allow for contradictions and ambiguities to exist in a fairly satisfactory manner.

    I wish I had written this. It expresses much of what I wanted to much more succinctly.

    On a slightly different note, I’m amused that we share a fairly similar analytical perspective (for lack of a better term for it) while almost always holding opposite opinions about the movies under discussion. (I think Yojimbo is one of the few we both rate highly, though possibly for different reasons.) Maybe that’s another one of life’s contradictions.

    Ugetsu:

    I understand that sometimes phrases like ‘humanism’ and ‘feminism’ are used more as a useful shorthand than a literal description (and I’m guilty of that myself I know), but I think this is an example of the sort of intellectual dead end that a focus on an auteur theory can lead us down – i.e. having described certain film makers and films as ‘humanist’, we then start ranking them on a sort of ‘who’s the best humanist’ type scale. Its annoying, but much worse, it strongly suggests that the entire direction of analysis and criticism is very wrongheaded, leading us to fundamentally misunderstand the film.

    I agree with you (and based on prior discussions, I think everyone active on this forum does). It’s hard to avoid using the same analytical tools as the critics you disagree with. As Vili suggests, these terms are broad and carry their own brand of ambiguity.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, I dunno what “humanism” means…it’s been turned into a pretzel, and even as an invention of Jacob Burkhardt to craft a way of looking at a time period (what we now call the Renaissance) and giving it shape and meaning, it has limits in application.

    The Kenyon Review published an article called “Kuroswa’s Humanism” some 14 years after Rashomon received the Golden Lion in Venice…it is here:

    Kurosawa’s Humanism

    Charles Higham

    The Kenyon Review , Vol. 27, No. 4 (Autumn, 1965), pp. 737-742

    Published by: Kenyon College

    Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4334603

    I don’t know if you can access this article. It might be interesting to see if it offers clarity…or at least timeframe context.

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    Ugetsu

    Coco, thanks for the link, it does look intriguing, although unfortunately I can only open the first page.

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    lawless

    Same here. Unless the local library is part of a group that allows access to this journal, I can’t see it either. That is the problem with most academic publications.

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    cocoskyavitch

    lawless, if you have any affiliation with a university or college, the library will have J-Stor access…your uni login will do, in that case, or using a uni computer as well. I should think many libraries hav J-Stor as well. BTW, now I remember Vili as being a Kindle user…maybe some others are as well, and if so has anyone tried the lending library?

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    lawless

    Coco – Unfortunately, I don’t have an affiliation with a university or college. I know some public libraries have access to such databases. I need to check mine out, especially as I have some slight ambition to write a fictionalized version of the life of the Marquise de Brinvilliers (nee Marie d’Aubray), the first person prosecuted for being a poisoner during the Affair des Poisons. (I may not have the French spelling right.) With the help of her lover, she poisoned her father, brother, and husband. (The husband, however, didn’t die from it.) None of the historical sources I’ve seen mentioned are in our local library.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hs! I think you’ve spelled it right. Poissons would be fish!

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    Vili Maunula

    I remember Vili as being a Kindle user…maybe some others are as well, and if so has anyone tried the lending library?

    I haven’t used the lending library, and I’m actually not sure if it’s enabled here. Plenty of features get turned off when you move outside of the US borders. It’s actually quite annoying how regular people are cut off from academic publications, as we don’t have easy access to electronic article databases.

    As for the Kindle, mine has actually been collecting dust these past months, as I have reverted back into buying paper books. While reading on the Kindle is more convenient, Amazon’s ebooks simply have way too many formatting and scanning problems that take away from my enjoyment of the books.

    Also, because of my work my primary use for the Kindle was to easily transport play manuscripts and screenplays and read them while on the go. After I purchased an Android smart phone, I have been using my phone rather than the Kindle for this purpose.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ahh. Yep, I use my iPad the way you use your smartphone! This summer as we traveled through Switzerland, Italy and Greece fully 50% of my students had the iPad 2 (I have the less desireable, and now antique iPad first gen).

    I need the larger (than itouch or smartphone) size of the iPad for giving exams, showing images, etc., and I have the Kindle app and read on it there, too. Lots of free stuff, but it is largely Project Gutenberg stuff with no hyperlinks…whatta pain, right? I confess, though, that being able to download a book in Istanbul, then read it the night before a scheduled meeting with the author-that was awesome!!!!

    I’m still in love with the idea of having so much content in images and text at my fingertips. Haven’t tried the lending library yet, though.

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