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Sansho the Bailiff: Idealism and self-sacrifice

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    Ugetsu

    In the discussion in the introduction, Vili draws out the possibility that Sansho Dayu is related to Rashomon by way of its implied commentary on post war guilt. Martinez draws our attention to the overlooked importance of guilt in Rashomon, and how the film deals with the unstated failure of millions of Japanese to query or challenge the military government of Japan before and during the war.

    But we have seen other films by Kurosawa that focus on post war guilt, and the impossibility of doing good in such situations, most notably No Regrets for our Youth. The latter film examined the different paths taken by members of the 1930’s generation and the different ways each tried to fight the military government in their own small way. Each of course, failed. The most idealistic of all, Noge, died in prison having achieved little or nothing.

    I couldn’t help but compare Noge and Zushio in Sansho Dayu – both are driven individuals, determined to take down the rotten, feudalistic structures of the time. Neither compromised. And both failed – and it is implied in both films that both knew they would fail, but preferred to destroy their lives rather than live a lie.

    As we discussed in the introduction, Zushio clearly meant well when he found himself having the extraordinary luck to take his fathers place as a regional governor. And he immediately set about doing the ‘right’ thing – freeing all the slaves. But in so doing, he quite deliberately ignored the warnings of his advisers that it would not just destroy his own career, it would, ultimately, be quite futile. Its easy to look upon his actions as quite stupid, as if he had taken a slower, more thoughtful approach he could well have made a real difference in the end, even if he would have had to make some compromises.

    A key flaw in the film (which probably arose from the nature of the source material), is that there is little real character development for any of the main characters. Zushio goes from brave child to sullen consigliere to bull headed idealist without much pause for thought. So its hard to know whether his later acts were the actions of a noble but rather dimwitted young man, or whether he quite deliberately intended to make a suicidal gesture in the implacable face of the feudal system.

    Which brings us to Mizoguchi, and why he chose this particular story? A long running theme of many of his films seems to be female sacrifice for men, and we see this in Anju’s suicide. But Zushio, like his father before him, also seems to be making a sacrifice for the people. No doubt a contemporary audience would be thinking that few if any of the ruling classes of Japan were willing to make this sort of sacrifice for them during the war years.

    While Kurosawa’s films are constantly depicting characters seeking a ‘way’ for people to do good – and while so many of the chosen ways seem futile, they keep trying different approaches, always torturing themselves in the process. In contrast, in this particular Mizoguchi film, we see two good men (aided by self-sacrificing females), trying to maintain a high degree of idealism and humanity, and only succeeding in saving their own dignity – in reality, they may well have made things worse. You could see it as nobility, or if so inclined, you could also see it as a form of self-destructive narcissism.

    Perhaps this is what Mizoguchi intended – to highlight the reality of a feudal society is that idealism and humanism is inevitably self destructive and narcissistic? Was he really condemning the entire notion of self-sacrifice as central to the Japanese identity?

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    Vili Maunula

    This is a very thought-provoking interpretation of the film. As you point out, the full reasons behind Zushio’s actions remain a mystery, as Mizoguchi, perhaps intentionally, never really reveals much about the internal world of his main character. This makes the film’s story hard to read, and I would say also hard to relate to, but it could be the effect Mizoguchi for one reason or another intended.

    The link between Zushio and his father is indeed very important, and I wonder if by showing us how much the father is loved after his death — indicated by the flowers on his grave — Mizoguchi shows us that in a sense the father’s self-destructive actions were not entirely in vain, as he has brought at least some level of happiness into the world. By extension, we can imagine that Zushio too will probably be lovingly remembered for his actions, even if those actions had no positive long-term consequences, just as was the case with his father.

    The question then becomes whether it is worth more to stand for what you believe in and give people hope and the knowledge that there is still good in the world, rather than bending to accept the evils of the world while trying to cause small changes in society from within the rotten machinery. In the former case, the reward for your actions is entirely non-material, whereas in the latter it is wholly material. Zushio and his father seem to believe more in spiritual worth, although as mentioned earlier it is difficult to say whether Zushio really thinks about his actions at all, and is not just acting whimsically.

    In any case, this dilemma is fairly relevant also in today’s industrialised world, when you for instance start to think about how an individual should act when facing issues such as climate change, third world suffering or the unequal global (and local) distribution of wealth. You can either be a noble idealist or a less radical compromiser. Here, Zushio is acting more like Greenpeace than Bono — more action, less diplomacy.

    There is a third character in the film who I believe is significant in this context: Sansho’s son Taro, who is unable to accept the way his father runs their estate. His solution is to become a monk, and in a sense detach himself from society’s suffering altogether. While he is depicted as a noble character, one can question whether his decision, even more so than the actions of either Zushio or his father, are in fact a sign of giving up, or empty narcissism. If anyone, it is Taro who would be able to break the cycle of slavery at the estate. Presumably, all he would need to do is wait until his father hands him the reigns — although the reality of governing under the influence of Minister of the Right might well make the issue somewhat more complicated than that. In any case, for one reason or another he chooses to step away from the issue altogether, and not engage it at all. When it comes to modern world issues like the ones mentioned earlier, I see myself in Taro.

    To get back to the question that you raise, I don’t think that I would interpret Sansho the Bailiff as condemning self-sacrifice, although I wouldn’t say that it glorifies it, either. It certainly appears to be problematising it.

    While it may have nothing to do with the reality in which Sansho the Bailiff was made, or Mizoguchi’s intentions for it, you could also look at the film’s apparent theme of well-meaning self-sacrifice as a comment on the events that had taken place in post-war Japan. In this interpretation, the film would bear similarities to Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well, which showed us that by the late 1950s it had become clear that despite its new democratic beginning, Japan was still being run by the same old thieves, robbers and oppressors that had originally caused the war. Perhaps this was already becoming evident in 1954 when Sansho the Bailiff came out. The kamikaze-like introduction of democracy carried out by the Allied Occupation that had ended in 1952, could perhaps have been seen by some as something to be likened to Zushio’s actions. Well-meaning, but ultimately quite meaningless to the group of people most affected.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    As you point out, the full reasons behind Zushio’s actions remain a mystery, as Mizoguchi, perhaps intentionally, never really reveals much about the internal world of his main character.

    I think a striking feature of Mizoguchi’s films of this period is that most of the characters rarely seem to have much in the way of an internal world – especially his historic films. I haven’t looked at them in a while but certainly Yokihi, Life of Oharu and Ugetsu Monogatari are characterized by individuals who are more symbolic than real people – even Oharu in that film is almost annoyingly blank in her long suffering nature. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a ‘real’ person in any of his films, with the exception of his ensemble pieces such as Akasen Chitai. Whether this is a choice, or whether he wasn’t actually very good at developing real characters rather than ciphers for his own ideas its hard to say. I would imagine that in the ensemble work it would have been down to the actors (and he always chose great actors) to flesh out those characters. So I’m inclined to think this is more of a weakness of Mizoguchi as a director than a creative choice.

    The kamikaze-like introduction of democracy carried out by the Allied Occupation that had ended in 1952, could perhaps have been seen by some as something to be likened to Zushio’s actions.

    I think thats a very good comparison – I wonder if the ‘celebration’ scene where the slaves drunkenly party and vandalise Sansho’s mansion is intended as a critique of how ordinary Japanese reacted to post war freedom. Perhaps the comparison of the thoughtful way the peasants looked after his fathers grave (honoring his doomed attempt to help them) to the drunken revelry that accompanied real freedom is meant as an ironic counterpoint. In other words, people respond better to the idea of freedom than the reality of freedom.

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    lawless

    Oh, boy. My reaction to this movie was a lot different from either of yours, I think mainly because this film has a lot of heart, and heart in a technically accomplished movie goes a long way for me. That’s probably why I don’t like Rashomon; Kurosawa’s movies usally have heart, though maybe not as melodramatically as Sansho the Bailiff does, but Rashomon is a very cerebral, cool movie by comparison to the rest of Kurosawa’s work.

    Part of what I mean by heart is that the film and its characters engage my empathy. I’m a little bewildered, therefore, at the suggestion that Kushio’s motivations are a mystery. It seems pretty clear that, given his demeanor and some of the things he says to Sansho, as well as his experiences in Sansho’s household, he is motivated by a desire for retribution, a desire to honor his father’s example and follow in his footsteps (in other words, filial piety crossed with not a little family pride), a desire for justice for the slaves who labor in the same conditions he both suffered from and made others suffer, a desire for redemption for his prior collaboration, as well as a desire to show mercy and do the right thing in the midst of an unjust society.

    While the assumption that Kushio’s actions were ultimately futile, and that his actions may in fact have made the lives of Sansho’s slaves worse in the long run, is probably correct, the film itself doesn’t necessarily support this. The film ends with the slaves freed and Sansho in exile before the Minister of the Right puts someone else in Sansho’s place. It is a bittersweet victory for Kushio, because he’s resigned the position that gave him the power to do this and of his family, only he and his mother are still alive. But by resigning his post and by fleeing to Sado, isn’t it possible that he avoided any personal fallout? Most likely he would have been exiled, not killed. So I don’t think he’s a foolish or naive as you think he is.

    More importantly, and something you discuss in this thread, I believe he acted as he did because he didn’t see any other way of acting that would be effective in the long run. The system of private slavery he opposed was carried on with the implicit, if not explicit, approval of the state, considering that the Minister of the Right owned the estate that Sansho managed. Especially if Kushio wanted revenge, or just to put Sansho out of business, exercising his authority as a governor, even if he was exceeding his jurisdiction, was the only way he could get it.

    I found what he did noble, and while rash, what could he have done that would have accomplished anything if he’d kept within his boundaries? With his intimate personal knowledge of the dehumanization that was going on, he would have felt like a cowardly collaborator if he didn’t use the power that fell into his hands to right this wrong, and following “the rules” would have meant doing nothing. Given who Sansho’s patron was, is it really realistic to think he could have had any incremental effect whatsoever?

    I think Mizoguchi thought of this as a situation in which society was so unjust, and based on such injustice (per the intro, that society was inhuman), that only radical action was appropriate. As discussed, this could be viewed as, and might even be meant as, an implicit criticism of pre-war Japanese society.

    As for why Kushio and Anju didn’t admit their true identities, might they not have wanted to impoverish their parents, who were in disgrace anyway, by trying to ransom them? Did their parents even have the wherewithal to pay ransom at this point? By the same token, they might have feared being targeted for worse things if their identities were known. The slaves wouldn’t have trusted them because they’d known better lives before, and Sansho might have reacted to his mistake by killing them or subjecting them to even worse treatment.

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    cocoskyavitch

    lawless thanks for your input. I was wondering where to edge into the conversation, since I have loved Sansho Dayu, but couldn’t find an entry point. And, I understand that I needed one to love the film to be able to open the conversation.

    I do not find the people in Mizoguchi to be

    “…individuals who are more symbolic than real people – even Oharu in that film is almost annoyingly blank in her long suffering nature.”

    as Ugetsu says.

    I find many of Mizoguchi’s characters deeply moving.

    A beautiful appreciation of the film is here: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19530101/EDITOR/40827002/1023

    lawless, you are right-Mizoguchi is a poetic flimmaker- and I think his imagery is the vehicle of meaning as much as is the story. So, no worries about plot points or illogical happenings…Mizoguchi is telling us dreamscapes. I think Jim Emerson said it in the aforementioned article very beautifully;

    “…several quests are intertwined, and each rhymes off the others to create a harmonic wholeness that is Kenji Mizoguchi’s hallmark as a director. The quest of a brother and sister for their mother; of a slave for freedom; of a boy for this father and the principles for which his father stood (or of a boy to become the man his father became); and the quest of a stream for the sea-all are equally significant journeys for Mizoguchi.”

    Perhaps if we ask ourselves why this story would have been a folktale-what resonated with people?-then, perhaps we can approach the film with a more open heart to see its beauties, symbolic echos and harmonies, its organic structure, its messages of seeking, change, and transience.

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    lawless

    Coco – One of the reasons I ordered and watched Sansho after all was Vili telling me he remembered you mentioning that you liked it. Our taste is similar enough (example: Seven Samurai) that I thought that I might like it too.

    I also found the characters more dimensional than Ugetsu and Vili do, and I really love what the actress playing the mother does with her role. It really feels right for the period depicted.

    Oddly enough, I happened to run across the blog from which you quote last night while I was looking for information on the origins of the story on which the film is based.

    And, while this isn’t all that germane to this thread, did anyone else, on first viewing, distrust the seemingly helpful priestess to begin with? When the servant said that the governor had decreed that people not allow travelers to stay overnight because of brigands and other criminals, I wondered if it was wise to trust that someone who turned up out of the blue wasn’t in fact a brigand or one of their accomplices.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    My reaction to this movie was a lot different from either of yours, I think mainly because this film has a lot of heart, and heart in a technically accomplished movie goes a long way for me.

    Intreresting! For me, the technical qualities of Mizoguchi’s films often get in the way of empathizing with the characters. The exception, as I mentioned above, is of his ensemble films set in brothels or geisha houses, which I think are wonderful.

    Part of what I mean by heart is that the film and its characters engage my empathy. I’m a little bewildered, therefore, at the suggestion that Kushio’s motivations are a mystery. It seems pretty clear that, given his demeanor and some of the things he says to Sansho, as well as his experiences in Sansho’s household, he is motivated by a desire for retribution, a desire to honor his father’s example and follow in his footsteps (in other words, filial piety crossed with not a little family pride), a desire for justice for the slaves who labor in the same conditions he both suffered from and made others suffer, a desire for redemption for his prior collaboration, as well as a desire to show mercy and do the right thing in the midst of an unjust society.

    I agree that this is what drives him – my problem on viewing the film (I would guess that Vili would share this), is that his character changes his mind so much and so frequently it is hard for me to have much sympathy with his good intentions. But I do think the scene where the broken branch suddenly pulls him back to that initially idyllic night by the lake with his sister is wonderful and does emphasise with great force the power of memory – its a little like the madeleines of Proust.

    More importantly, and something you discuss in this thread, I believe he acted as he did because he didn’t see any other way of acting that would be effective in the long run.

    Again, this may be true, but my problem with the character is that we see no evidence that he struggled with conflicting thoughts or ideas. There are hints within the film of the possibility of ‘different paths’, but they are very underdeveloped, and this for me makes the film a lot less interesting. But then again, it may be that Mizoguchi wasn’t really interested in this aspect at all, he was possibly (as Coco’s link suggests) far more concerned with notions of memory and transience. It is perhaps a mistake (on my part) to focus too much on the characters motivation as metaphors for contemporary events.

    As for why Kushio and Anju didn’t admit their true identities, might they not have wanted to impoverish their parents, who were in disgrace anyway, by trying to ransom them? Did their parents even have the wherewithal to pay ransom at this point? By the same token, they might have feared being targeted for worse things if their identities were known. The slaves wouldn’t have trusted them because they’d known better lives before, and Sansho might have reacted to his mistake by killing them or subjecting them to even worse treatment.

    I agree, I don’t think its that big a plot hole, there are plenty of reasons (including just fear) why they would not admit their identities.

    And, while this isn’t all that germane to this thread, did anyone else, on first viewing, distrust the seemingly helpful priestess to begin with? When the servant said that the governor had decreed that people not allow travelers to stay overnight because of brigands and other criminals, I wondered if it was wise to trust that someone who turned up out of the blue wasn’t in fact a brigand or one of their accomplices.

    Yes, when I first watched the film I felt a bit of a chill seeing her – I thought the actress did very well in suggesting a current of menace underneath the helpful exterior.

    coco

    A beautiful appreciation of the film is here: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19530101/EDITOR/40827002/1023

    A lovely essay as always by Ebert. I think he expresses very well why some writers emphasise this film along with Oharu and Ugetsu Monogatari as a ‘series’ on memories and perceptions, and it is a good reason not to take any contemporary metaphors too far. However, I do see within that essay a lot of the eastern orientalist cliches that I think Rayns suggests were deliberately implanted within the film by Mizoguchi precisely to appeal to a certain type of western critic, the type referred to by the writer Alex Kerr as the Chrysanthemum Club. Or, as I think Kurosawa expressed it, those who look at a vase and see far more than just a vase.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu:

    my problem on viewing the film (I would guess that Vili would share this), is that his character changes his mind so much and so frequently it is hard for me to have much sympathy with his good intentions.

    Kushio goes from youthful (and reflexive) agreement with the idealism of his father to a beaten-down slave’s collaboration with Sansho back to a more mature appreciation of his father’s ideals. Depending on how you count (I view his change of heart while a slave as reverting back to prior beliefs), that’s one or two changes of heart. That doesn’t seem excessive, or even that unusual.

    my problem with the character is that we see no evidence that he struggled with conflicting thoughts or ideas.

    Perhaps some of this comes from my experiences with writing, but I’ve come to prefer seeing character developed through actions, and to a lesser extent dialogue, rather than inner thoughts, so I had no problem with his inner struggles being off camera. In fact, I think keeping that offscreen works even better in movies than in fiction; after all, fiction is the medium best suited to showing inner conflict, whereas movies are not. The changes in his demeanor as his outlook changes were enough for me.

    As for the double-crossing priestess, I wasn’t suspicious of her because of her behavior but because the fact that a law had been passed banning overnight stays by travelers because of the depredations of bandits and slave traders (I’d forgotten that slave traders had been mentioned specifically) suggested that someone willing to violate it might either be a bandit or slave trader or in cahoots with them, as turned out to be the case.

    As for eastern orientalist cliches: Are you referring to the rather purple prose or to the statement that Mizoguchi deliberately framed his shots in a manner reminiscent of ukioyo-e? (Sorry, I may have the spelling wrong.) Because the former isn’t Mizoguichi’s fault and as far as I can tell, the latter is true. I don’t think consciously imitating Japanese art is a bad thing, nor am I convinced that he did it for the benefit of Western audiences. If anything, I’d think he did it for the benefit of Japanese audiences, who, after all, were the main source of income for his movies.

    Also, as far as we know, Kurosawa did simlar things and just didn’t talk about it. I don’t see as big a gap as others seem to between Mizoguchi’s aesthetics, at least once he gets outside interior shots, and Kurosawa’s anyway. I think, as with the statement that Kurosawa was more influenced by Western movies and books than Ozu and Mizoguchi — a statement I think is factually accurate, considering that he filmed adaptations of Western books, his movies were consciously influenced by the conventions of certain Western movie genres, and some, if not all, of the movie directors he most admired were Western, none of which I believe is true of Ozu or Mizoguchi — it may say more about your irritation with the state of Western movie criticism of Japanese directors and films than anything else.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Thanks, lawless for “getting” my aesthetic on the film…it is good to have your voice in this discussion. though, the “who-is-more “Japanese” of the big 3” discussion…I’ll sit that one out. Just read a bit about Mizoguchi’s interest in Western themes and styles:

    Surviving reviews and synopses suggest a considerable eclecticism and an interest in Western modes and material: thus Foggy Harbour (1924) was a transposition of Anna Christie, while Blood and Soul (1923) imitated German expressionism.

    ~This is from the Senses of Cinema blog.

    (http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/mizoguchi/)

    Ugetsu, I believe that there is a way of making, and looking at film that is more similar to the way people make and look at some kinds of poetry than it is to making or “reading” novelistic storytelling- and I think that’s where the article by Jim Emerson comes in…it is instructive in guiding our view toward the poetry of the film, possible topics of discussion. I will overlook the charge of “Orientalist” applied to the article, as I cannot see it applies, unless you think that trying to align one’s vision/appreciation to a different (poetic) aesthetic work is somehow pandering.

    For example, the suggestion in Emerson’s article that the young man is trying to be the man his father grew to be…that is really quite helpful for all the “stupid git surviving his superior sister” stuff, and I would love to see someone discuss that thread from that sympathetic point of view.

    I have forgotten who once said that it is just wrong to look at the Grand Canyon and say, “cute”. Right vision (can there be such a thing?) allots the majestic its due. And, may I extend, the poetic its haunting space.

    my problem with the character is that we see no evidence that he struggled with conflicting thoughts or ideas.

    …but, we don’t see struggle of that sort in fairy tales. That’s not how they go about their business, usually. Again, the business of fairy tales and how they serve filmmaking would be interesting to read as discussed by our wise and knowledgeable group, as both this film and Ugetsu are based on fairy/folk tales.

    Sight and Sound says of Sansho:

    “The man who is without mercy is like a beast,” says the father of the hero Zushio in Mizoguchi Kenji’s late masterpiece Sansho Dayu (1954). To remind his son of this maxim he puts in the boy’s hand a small statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. This object is central not only to the moral philosophy of the film but also to its narrative development; later it will be the token by which Zushio is recognised by more than one important character. Zushio, who will for a time be corrupted by the cruelties of the world, redeems himself by following his father’s teachings, which are those of the Buddhist faith.

    The prominence of Buddhism in Sansho Dayu is doubtless attributable to a change in Mizoguchi’s own worldview: he had recently embraced the Nichiren sect of the religion. For a man who had committed himself in the 1930s and during the occupation to secular left-wing ideals, this conversion may be interpreted as a return to his Asian roots. Yet this was paradoxically at a time when Mizoguchi’s work was achieving unprecedented recognition abroad. It is a telling illustration of this paradox that when the director went to Italy in 1953 to attend the Venice Film Festival, where Ugetsu Monogatari was screening in competition, he took with him a votive image of Kannon and prayed to her for victory.

    ~http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49445

    We may ask ourselves many questions of Mizoguchi-why was he obsessed with women in roles of subservience and often tragic circumstances? His sister was sold as geisha…is that to say he became a champion of women, or was he a misogynist…or a realist? So complicated…And, then, why did he infect his lover with the std that made her insane? And why did he say; “You don’t know women unless you have one of these..”(?) …pointing to a scar on his back from his lover’s dagger? Why did he cry on seeing a van Gogh painting in Paris? Who was he..what did he believe? Why did he try to ruin his leading lady’s directorial career?

    Personal struggle? That’s Kurosawa’s gig-all about human struggle!

    But, Mizoguchi is about tragic poems….or at least, my favorites of his are about that. I love Ugetsu Monogatori as I have loved few films, ever. It’s not for any special reason…its just that once having seen it, I could not for the life of me forget it. I fel the same about Sansho Dayu.

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    lawless

    I’d done an earlier version of my last comment and lost it because I foolishly clicked on the link to Jim Emerson’s appreciation of the film (it’s Roger Ebert’s site, but Jim Emerson wrote it). What I forgot to carry over from one version to the other is that the characters in this movie are archetypal. I think that goes hand-in-hand with the story being a folk/fairy tale (or, as I look at it, a morality play). From what I’ve now read and seen about Mizoguchi (thanks for the correction on Mizoguchi’s earlier adaptations of Western sources, Coco — I wasn’t aware of that), his earlier movies were more realistic (and less likely to be period films) than later ones like Sansho the Bailiff and The 47 Ronin.

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    cocoskyavitch

    lawless, it’s a good point you bring up-the jidai-geki-those set in the past-often have different qualities (mythic, archetypal) than the gendai-geki-those set in contemporary settings.

    So, Ugetsu has titled this thread Sansho the Bailiff: Idealism and self-sacrifice -a thread that resonates, since sacrifice, as Ugetsu states, is often the theme of Mizoguchi’s films featuring women in the central role. In this film, however, we have a male protagonist who survives until the last scene where he is reunited with his mother. Ugetsu says:

    …in this particular Mizoguchi film, we see two good men (aided by self-sacrificing females), trying to maintain a high degree of idealism and humanity, and only succeeding in saving their own dignity – in reality, they may well have made things worse. You could see it as nobility, or if so inclined, you could also see it as a form of self-destructive narcissism.

    The “high degree of idealism and humanity” referred to by Ugetsu are not necessarily nullified by impractical application. Ineffectual, and possibly foolhardy… that may be. The father fails at effecting lasting, positive change. And, as in many folktales, there is an echoing action…the father frees the slaves, the son and daughter are sold into slavery.

    The son must suffer through life lessons to effect the goodness of his father-albeit on a very small scale-reuniting and caring for his aged mother at the resolution of the film. I have found those last scenes so very heartbreaking. The resolution is a sad acceptance of the brutality of the world.

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    lawless

    Coco – But it’s those final scenes that make me think Kushio’s actions haven’t been for naught. Is the Minister of the Right going to pursue Kushio to Sado, or is he going to think that he’s effectively in exile now anyway? Would he even be able to find him there, considering that hardly anyone seems to realize that Kushio’s mother is still alive or knows where she lives?

    Yes, it’s sad that Kushio’s sister and father aren’t alive to reunite the entire family, but in a sense, they’re with them in spirit, since they are the ones who inspired and made Kushio’s journey (both physical and spiritual) possible. I consider Kushio’s reunion with his mother the best outcome possible under the circumstances, so I think the movie has a happy ending. What makes it bittersweet are the losses they went through to get there.

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    cocoskyavitch

    lawless said…

    But it’s those final scenes that make me think Kushio’s actions haven’t been for naught.

    Yes. Exactly right, that is the harmonic melody completed…the father’s promise is brought to fruition in a very different way than he had intended-on a small scale with much devastation in between-that is the tragedy-but also the “best outcome possible under the circumstances”.

    When I say the resolution is a sad acceptance of the brutality of the world I mean that in a Buddhist sense, life is full of pain and loss-this is the reality of the world.

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    Vili Maunula

    As always, it is interesting to read everyone’s reactions to the films. Lawless — I am happy to hear that you ended up renting Sansho, and liked it. Coco — I was hoping you would chip into the discussion, as I remembered you liking the film, and the discussion needed a counterpoint.

    I am a little sorry to see that the discussion has veered away from idealism and self-sacrifice, but having said that, I am not sure if I have anything more to contribute to the topic. It is interesting enough to just read your reactions.

    Ugetsu: my problem on viewing the film (I would guess that Vili would share this), is that his character changes his mind so much and so frequently it is hard for me to have much sympathy with his good intentions.

    Actually, my problem is not so much his changing his mind, but rather that, as you mention elsewhere, his reasons for acting like he does are not really explored. For some (most?) viewers this appears to be fine. For one reason or another, I cannot accept it.

    Lawless suggests that “his inner struggles [are] off camera.” Again, I don’t feel that. None of the characters to me seem to have a life outside of the camera. While Coco and lawless find the characters deeply moving, they come across as very cardboard-like to me, one-dimensional puppets whose only purpose is to move forward the story. As a result, I never really connect with the world or the characters or their problems. And so, while I can see that there is great emotional potential in the film, it never does that to me. I dislike pretty much every character in the film, and cannot really care for their problems. The final scene, which I know many find very moving (and I can perfectly well understand why) bores me greatly.

    Ugetsu: But I do think the scene where the broken branch suddenly pulls him back to that initially idyllic night by the lake with his sister is wonderful and does emphasise with great force the power of memory – its a little like the madeleines of Proust.

    Your mentioning this reminded me of another problem that I have with the film. The scene where Zushio and his sister break a branch just before his escape is quite sweet, but I feel that simply showing the act of breaking the branch would have been enough there, and no dialogue referring to the earlier event would have been needed. It was only an hour ago that we saw almost exactly the same scene, so it’s not like we really need that brief verbal exchange which follows it and makes sure that the audience got the reference.

    This is a narrative habit which seems to run through the film. Plot points are underlined, and with a heavy marker as well. I’m not sure what exactly is going on here, whether Mizoguchi didn’t trust his audience, his actors or himself. It is almost a criminal offence really, for a director of his visual calibre to not follow the basic “show, don’t tell” rule.

    Perhaps the characters then irritate me because whenever they open their mouths or otherwise monopolise the screen they distract me away from the beauty of the visuals. And they rarely have anything interesting to say or do. As a thought experiment I wonder whether much would be lost (from my viewing of the film) if we took away all sound (and subtitles). My guess is that the film’s story would still be perfectly understandable. This may say something about the lack of content in the dialogue. You may, of course, disagree.

    I must also mention that based on my limited experience with Mizoguchi, I feel that while he was brilliant in producing beautiful images, I am not equally confident of his excellence in using visuals for the purposes of furthering and enriching the narrative. This may sound like it is contradicting what I wrote in the paragraph above, but I don’t intend it as such. Sansho‘s story is very basic, and the visuals do their job in narrating it. But as I keep repeating, the people and the world are in my view quite cardboard. It is here that we would have needed more attention also to visual detail, to breathe life into the world, to make it more alive. You know, little things, character things, a look here, a glance there, something.

    There is very little subtlety in Sanho, either in its text or its visuals.

    As I wrote before, I know that it is more or less a fairy tale, and therefore I am probably scrutinising it too harshly. But the film just never manages to win me over. And it kind of bothers me.

    Coco: the “who-is-more “Japanese” of the big 3″ discussion…I’ll sit that one out

    I will do so too, but yesterday I read a fairly interesting take on the subject by the Japanese film critic Tadao Sato. In the introduction to his book Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema he suggests that the question of “who is more Japanese” is flawed, because due to Japan’s long history of class-based hierarchies there has never been a single, pure Japanese culture. In Sato’s view, the three great directors simply represent influences from different classes: Kurosawa draws from the ethics and aesthetics of the samurai class, Ozu from the petit bourgeois culture of the modernising merchant class, while Mizoguchi’s works are most influenced by the feudal merchant class and its traditions of kabuki and traditional dance. Finally, Sato mentions Shohei Imamura as the director most strongly connected to the peasant class.

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    Ugetsu

    A brief comment here as I don’t have time to respond in detail at the moment (I really want to, this has become a very stimulating discussion), but suffice to say I agree very much with Vili’s feelings on the film. In comparison to Ugetsu Monogatari I find the film far too literal and didactic. After the third time or so we are told ‘Without sympathy, man is just a beast’ I felt like yelling at the screen ‘yeah, I get it, I get it!’.

    I will just add that one of the main reasons for my somewhat negative comments on this are the disappointment of a fan. As my chosen name here suggests, Mizoguchi was one of the first Japanese directors I started watching, and I loved (and still love) his best films. But while with Kurosawa and Ozu and (to a lesser extent), Naruse and others, the more I saw of their films (including their supposed ‘minor’ works), the more I became excited, fascinated and intrigued, the more Mizoguchi I watched the more disappointed I became. Some of his films are little more than hack work, and some (in my opinion) betray the shallowness behind his supposed humanism and feminism. Perhaps unfairly on my part, it led me to rethink what I’d loved about Ugetsu Monogatari and wonder if maybe there was less to them than I originally thought (I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the seductiveness of visually beautiful films recently, having watched a lot of Terrence Malick films in a row).

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    cocoskyavitch

    I’ve been so busy with work, it is a pleasure to steal a few moments to hear what you are saying about a favorite film.

    But, I dunno, guys, you know how in there is repetition and rhyming in fairy tales? This porridge is too hot, this porridge is too cold, this is just right….this bed is too hard, this is too soft, this is just right? I think that’s how these things are structured…and that repetition isn’t meant to speak down to the audience, it is speaking to the part of us (the young listener part) that delights in rhyming and repetition. That Mizoguchi does this visually is kinda awesome, no? I mean, as we all do agree that Mizouchi’s films are quite lovely, cannot we also look to where he uses visual rhyming or repetition to forward the story? The branch breaking is a familiar and comforting device, and just the sort to reinforce your experiences as you are led through the story.

    I am especially haunted (and I seem to be one little set of eyeballs in the world in agreement with most every critic on lmy appreciation of this ) with the scene of the suicide…walking into the water…and the way it echoes the tragedy of mother and children at the river, earlier. I think the choice of Mizoguchi to show the framing trees in the suicide makes the scene one of special privacy and poignancy. This is a private, sad, self-sacrifice, and showing us only her back is a kind of respectful distance for what she feels she must do to give her brother a chance at life. She gives herself so that she won’t be tortured and betray him. Sometimes we don’t need an actor’s histrionics to FEEL deeply the moment depicted. That’s a special kind of directorial genius-one that tells stories mostly without language, and can give emotion to a framing device and choice of what and how to set a scene.

    Mizoguchi’s famous long-shots and high vantage point shouldn’t make it impossible for you to FEEL the action.

    (Sidebar: Isn’t there something funny about Ozu-low, Kurosawa in the middle of the action with multiple telephoto lenses and Mizoguschi high above and far away? I mean, their hallmark compositions being so specific to them-it’s really odd, as if one wore red socks only, one wore only blue, one yellow…nevermind…just an aside.)

    After all, have you ever held, say, Chinese shadow puppets in your hands? Yes, they are one-dimensional and flat, but it is absolutely amazing how looking at the contours of the forms can suggest a myriad of possible stories and emotions. Just pull on the sticks to move them, even ever so little, and they seem to come to life.

    I do agree with Vili that the language (or as much as I can glean from the subtitles) is…meh. Not too impressive. I don’t know why Mizoguchi felt that he had to use as much as he did. The film, in memory plays almost as a silent film for me. I forget completely any of the words, but remember certain images as if they happened to me personally.

    Ugetsu, revisit your love for Mizoguchi. You were right to love him. His star is ascendent, and deservedly. More folks are loving him than ever..simply because he is somewhat more available thanks to DVD releases by Criterion and others. But, no, he is no Kurosawa…that much is certain! He is a different cat altogether.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili:

    In Sato’s view, the three great directors simply represent influences from different classes: Kurosawa draws from the ethics and aesthetics of the samurai class, Ozu from the petit bourgeois culture of the modernising merchant class, while Mizoguchi’s works are most influenced by the feudal merchant class and its traditions of kabuki and traditional dance. Finally, Sato mentions Shohei Imamura as the director most strongly connected to the peasant class.

    An interesting take on it, and a reminder that class is maybe the most underrated of all influences on an artists life. One of the things I find curious about Ozu though is that his films actually changed with his own ‘rise’ in career and class – as he became more prosperous and a more establishment figure, the settings of his films became more and more upper-middle class. While I think its true to say that for Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Naruse, their films are infused with the environment of their youth.

    As I wrote before, I know that it is more or less a fairy tale, and therefore I am probably scrutinising it too harshly.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with a film as a fairy tale – there are plenty of great, complex films (The Company of Wolves comes to mind) based on fairy tales – and indeed I’m a fan of Martinez’s theory that folk tales are an important and underrated component of some of Kurosawa’s films, especially Yojimbo. But the best fairy tales are not in any way simplistic, and neither should the films based on those fairy tales.

    Coco

    …but, we don’t see struggle of that sort in fairy tales.

    I’m not so sure about that – a few weeks ago I was following the route of one of the greatest Irish fairy tales, the Cattle Raid of Cooley – it is one of the oldest and a true achetype (showing echos of Indo-European origins in shared elements with the Iliad). The story is full of internal struggles, usually involving conflicting blood oaths (when, for example, the great hero Cuchulainn is forced to fight his beloved half brother to the death). I’m not sure that seeking the origin of a story like Sansho in fairy tales is an adequate excuse for a fairly simplistic and literal minded approach – one Mizoguchi certainly didn’t follow in Ugetsu Monogatari.

    ~This is from the Senses of Cinema blog.

    (http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/mizoguchi/)

    Ugetsu, I believe that there is a way of making, and looking at film that is more similar to the way people make and look at some kinds of poetry than it is to making or “reading” novelistic storytelling- and I think that’s where the article by Jim Emerson comes in…it is instructive in guiding our view toward the poetry of the film, possible topics of discussion. I will overlook the charge of “Orientalist” applied to the article, as I cannot see it applies, unless you think that trying to align one’s vision/appreciation to a different (poetic) aesthetic work is somehow pandering.

    I think when that article has a passage such as:

    Although a much more profound humanist than Kurosawa, Mizoguchi rarely, if ever, advertised his social concerns with the sort of condescending didacticsm which appealed to the message-hungry middlebrows of Sight and Sound and its ilk.

    … you will know exactly my reaction! I think this deserves another tread, but as you know from previous comments on other films (although I’ve breached my own rules on this a few times), I have a real problem when critics start using a term such as ‘humanism’ in this context. In particular when the writer later tells us how influenced Mizoguchi was at this point by Buddhism. I’ve read many definitions of humanism, all of which implicitly or explicitly describe it as a secular philosophy. You cannot have a film which is humanist and buddhist, it is simply a non sequitur. And I also have a problem with applying anachronistic and culturally specific terms like ‘feminism’ to a mid-20th Century Japanese film maker – I think it is unhelpful and an excessive simplification of the real meaning (if there is a real meaning) to the films. This is the main reason why I find that Sense of Cinema (and the related article in Sight and Sound) pretty unhelpful.

    And to be honest, it is articles like that which seek to persuade me that Mizoguchi is the greatest Japanese film makers that actually persuades me the opposite – I am more convinced after reading this type of article that Mizoguchi is the ‘fantasy’ great film maker that a certain type of cultural critic wants – one who confirms his own prejudices about the essential ‘otherness’ of Japan, while confirming smug liberal assumptions.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Well, as you note, Ugetsu-there’s a world between Buddhism and Humanism, (though, I think it is possible the two meet somewhere, or rather, have points of overlap) and so, too, there’s a difference between simplistic and simple. We may just have to agree to disagree.

    Using the ideas and language of your time to look at any cultural object-well, it’s what we do, here, on this human plane. We are little diseases, like that-infecting what we observe. True of us all.

    Sorry you didn’t like the articles. Don’t think I can say whether or not the writers are “smug liberals” or not-I don’t think of people like that-it wouldn’t dawn on me. I found the articles helpful-they allow me follow (in a Daoist sense of letting loose the need to control) the irrational poetry of images that comes to its own blossoming.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I don’t think there is anything wrong with a film as a fairy tale … But the best fairy tales are not in any way simplistic, and neither should the films based on those fairy tales.

    This pretty much is the heart of the matter for me as well.

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    Ugetsu

    Coco

    Sorry you didn’t like the articles. Don’t think I can say whether or not the writers are “smug liberals” or not-I don’t think of people like that-it wouldn’t dawn on me. I found the articles helpful-they allow me follow (in a Daoist sense of letting loose the need to control) the irrational poetry of images that comes to its own blossoming.

    And having criticized the use of the term ‘humanism’, I then fall into my own trap of using another ambiguous word ‘liberal’. I have an economics background, so I suspect my interpretation of that word is different from yours (I’m thinking in terms of classical British Liberalism).

    I should add that while I seem to be setting my head up as the ‘anti’ crowd for this film, my criticisms actually come from my love of this film and other Mizoguchi works. I found the film mesmerizing when I first saw it, and I still love it. My (slight) disenchantment comes partly from other Mizoguchi films which (in my opinion) reveal him as a very shallow humanist or buddhist (in particular the ending of Lady of Musashino, a breathtakingly cynical film in my opinion, and one notably overlooked by Mizoguchi boosters), and what I consider to be the very wrongheaded way in which his films are championed as somehow the works of a ‘real’ Japanese. I keep linking to him, but I am very influenced in this by Alex Kerrs writings, while much of his book is wrong-headed in my view it is a vital corrective to the overly sympathetic view of ‘traditional’ Japanese culture that is so pervasive in so much Japanese cultural criticism.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, Kerr’s book looks interesting. Thank you for that link.

    I guess that when I rad criticism I am sifting for what is valuable to me. So, no, I don’t allways agree with the entirety nor do I swallow the fish whole. Isn’t it more a bit of this, dash of that that helps you articulate your own attitudes toward something?

    Not having the benefit of having read it yet, I dare say that any more-than-casual fan of Japanese post-war film senses something rather dark in Japanese culture (according to his/her own ability to see the totality), but then-I dare say that prolonged study of any culture is likely to reveal shades of grey to black that may not be evident at first.

    Isn’t it actually that love of all the cliche’s of beauty, refinement and tradition set against a depiction of the darker side of human life that makes Japanese film and literature so fascinating? That Oxford book of Japanese Short Stories ( http://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Japanese-Short-Stories-Books/dp/0192803727) blew me away with mesmerizing, shockingly harsh imagery depicting some of the horrible dark recesses of human psyche.

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    Ugetsu

    coco

    Not having the benefit of having read it yet, I dare say that any more-than-casual fan of Japanese post-war film senses something rather dark in Japanese culture (according to his/her own ability to see the totality), but then-I dare say that prolonged study of any culture is likely to reveal shades of grey to black that may not be evident at first.

    Thats true of course, but I think all cultures become more interesting when you start to see the shades of dark and light. I think the particular point of Kerr (and he’s not alone in making this point, there are several books on the topic) is that many western critics have confused what is quite a nationalistic and to some extent contrived official culture in Japan with a ‘real’ Japanese culture. I simply don’t know enough about the country to be able to say who is right, or to what extent he goes too far in his criticisms (he certainly does go too far, the book is in some respects a rant), but I do know that a lot of the contraditions I saw in Japan made a lot more sense after reading his book. Incidentally, another writer on Japan I love, this time a blog, is Spike Japan, which devotes itself to the rotting peripheries of the post boom country.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ugetsu, I clicked on the link to Spike Japan, thank you.

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    lawless

    Vili: Our mileage clearly varies when it comes to what constitutes telling and not showing in movies. (I’d hope that we’d find more agreement on the subject when it comes to literature.) I thought the first half of Oshima’s Gohatto engaged in too much telling, not enough showing, especially the intertitles, which really bothered me, whereas you liked the intertitles. Conversely, you see telling and not showing in Sansho where I see rhythmic repetition and underlining key images and symbols. Sure, you could argue that he makes too much of the stick throwing, but I’m not convinced it falls into the category of telling and not showing. It seems to me more of a pacing problem. Remember, I’m in the minority who think that the black market montage in Stray Dog goes on too long.

    Ugetsu:

    … the more Mizoguchi I watched the more disappointed I became. Some of his films are little more than hack work, and some (in my opinion) betray the shallowness behind his supposed humanism and feminism. Perhaps unfairly on my part, it led me to rethink what I’d loved about Ugetsu Monogatari and wonder if maybe there was less to them than I originally thought.

    This could be its own thread, untethered to this particular movie, but I’m not sure it’s wise to let your disappointment in work you consider inferior to automatically color your view of work you liked and admired. I also subscribe to the view that it’s better to keep one’s opinion of an artist (director, writer, whatever) as a person, their morality, or, in this case, their personal sincerity separate from one’s opinion of their works. The fact that Roman Polanski is a child rapist has, to my mind, nothing to do with whether his movies are any good or deserve awards. In a way, this also relates to the “death of the author” (or should that be auteur?) approach Vili takes, in which it’s what a movie means to each individual viewer, and not what the director meant by it, that matters. I don’t personally subscribe to it in as pure a form as that — I think that what the director meant by it has some relevance — but what one thinks of how well the director accomplished what he set out to is, I think, more important than how sincere he (or she) is.

    And to be honest, it is articles like that which seek to persuade me that Mizoguchi is the greatest Japanese film makers that actually persuades me the opposite – I am more convinced after reading this type of article that Mizoguchi is the ‘fantasy’ great film maker that a certain type of cultural critic wants – one who confirms his own prejudices about the essential ‘otherness’ of Japan, while confirming smug liberal assumptions.

    But since Mizoguchi didn’t, as far as I know, pay his advocates to write these silly and ridiculous things about him and his movies, why hold their stupidity against him? Your ire would be better directed at the perpetrators of these canards.

    Shorn of their hyperbole, I suspect what all of the articles you object to amount to is that the authors like Mizoguchi’s movies better than any other Japanese movies they’ve seen, which is a matter of taste, and to bolster their opinion, they think they need to run down other directors. I suspect a certain lack of self-analysis and knowledge is at work here too; people who don’t know why they like what they do tend to treat their own preferences as the epitome of great art.

    I think Kurosawa is the greatest director who ever lived, so by definition I consider him the best Japanese director ever. But to some extent that’s a matter of taste. I can recognize the greatness and talents of an Ozu or Mizoguchi without taking anything away from my love of Kurosawa, and I can say that Ozu’s movies are less to my taste so far than Mizoguchi and Kurosawa’s. I can (but won’t here) also tell you why. I doubt that these so-called critics can do that.

    I should add that while I seem to be setting my head up as the ‘anti’ crowd for this film, my criticisms actually come from my love of this film and other Mizoguchi works. I found the film mesmerizing when I first saw it, and I still love it. My (slight) disenchantment comes partly from other Mizoguchi films which (in my opinion) reveal him as a very shallow humanist or buddhist (in particular the ending of Lady of Musashino, a breathtakingly cynical film in my opinion, and one notably overlooked by Mizoguchi boosters), and what I consider to be the very wrongheaded way in which his films are championed as somehow the works of a ‘real’ Japanese.

    Until you posted this, I had thought you were in the same boat as Vili when it came to this film. I’d repeat my bewilderment as to why Mizoguchi’s perceived shallowness as displayed in other films has an effect on your opinion of this one or what bearing the stupidity of critics who adore Mizoguchi has on his abilities. Then again, I’m an old dinosaur who believes there is such a thing as objective truth, although we humans can only approximate it — one of several reasons why Rashomon is my least favorite Kurosawa masterpiece.

    And I also have a problem with applying anachronistic and culturally specific terms like ‘feminism’ to a mid-20th Century Japanese film maker – I think it is unhelpful and an excessive simplification of the real meaning (if there is a real meaning) to the films.

    I knew I’d seen this comment somehere; I’d thought it was on the humanism/Buddhism thread. At least I get to make use of the research I did. While it’s true that the term “feminism” didn’t gain currency in the West (or at least the US) until the 1960s, the term is now used to describe movements that started in the 19th century (universal suffrage or first wave feminism, which predates Sansho by many years). One of the seminal feminist works (and in my opinon, based on what I’ve read of and about others, among, if not the, best), is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which was published in 1949 and translated into English in 1953. I don’t know when (or even if) it was translated into Japanese, or how much was known about it by 1954, but by that standard, second wave feminism started in the mid-20th century, even though it wasn’t called that at the time. So while the term is anachronistic, the concept it refers to is not.

    As for the discussion of fairy and folk tales: It’s been too long since I read Grimm or Andrew Lang’s Red Book of Fairy Tales, but if one looks at the work of Hans Christian Andersen, some of which I’ve reread recently — admittedly, not folk tales (unless he adapted folk tales — I don’t know enough to say), but certainly considered fairy tales — a lot of them are, in fact, what could be called simplistic. Actually, when it comes to fairy/folk tales, morality tales, and archetypes, I’m not sure what is meant by the terms “simplistic” and “complex.” I guess I fall on Coco’s side of this discussion, but that’s probably a foregone conclusion since I liked the movie a lot. I even liked the script, which really makes me an outlier here.

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