Mizoguchi’s Masterpiece: “Sanshô, the Bailiff”

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Although I was reassured by finding “Ugetsu” visually dazzling upon seeing it again, I approached the DVD of Mizoguchi’s “Sanshô Dayu” (Sanshô, the Bailiff, 1954)  ( with some trepidation that it would not live up to my memories of it as a great film, memories dating from when I had seen hardly any of the Japanese film masterpieces.

I was relieved to find that I still  found the film, aided by the typically superb Criterion transfer, visually ravishing (Miyagawa Kazuo was a great cinematographer). Titles at the beginning announce that the film is telling a story of grief that came down in oral performance from the Heian era. As seems to be true of all Mizoguchi films, there is a lot of suffering, though, compared to “The Life of Oharu,” “Sanshô ” is upbeat.

As with many Japanese historical movies, there are scenes in “Sanshô ” that go on far longer than they would in American movies. In the appreciation of the film and the film-maker, Japanese film critic Sato Tadao relates the holding of a position (/composition) to the kabuki (etc.) tradition. There is no lack of movement—camera’s or character’s—in “Sanshô” and other Japanese film masterpieces, but it is not just that one could extract artistic stills, but that Japanese performing traditions in general and the films of masters like Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu et al. value immobility. (Perhaps the most incredible example of this is Nakadai’s immobility through something like three-quarters of “Seppuku,” after which the fury burning in his eyes is unleashed in a sword-fighting orgy of blood—though even the sword fights in samurai films have something of stop and go action with a brief pause between delivering a lethal blow and the dead man falling or spurting blood Nakadai also provided the prototype of this at the end of “Samurai Rebellion.”

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Perfomers.

Tanaka Kinuyo was, if not Mizoguchi’s muse, his recurrent embodiment of the Japanese woman sacrificing herself for family (generally sons). She was Oharu in the harrowing “Life of Oharu.” Tanaka was a strong woman, who became the first female Japanese film director. She generally played women of great inner strength and determination foiled by the status of women in Japanese society (usually in films set in the past, including “The Ballad of Narayama,” “Red Beard; and Mizoguchi’s ” “Ugetsu,” “Lady Oyu,” “Flame of My Love,” “Women of the Night,” and “The Crucified Lovers”), as she does in “Sanshô.” She has major histrionics to undertake in her fall from being a noblewoman to an enslaved prostitute to a blind old woman in “Sanshô .” Although top-billed, she is in relatively few scenes.

As Anju, Kagawa Kyôko is in more scenes and is even more the woman sacrificing everything for her brother. She went on to appear in Kurosawa movies (High and Low, The Bad Sleep Well, The Lower Depths) culminating in an award-winning turn as the wife in his last movie, “Madadayo,” as well as in Mizoguchi’s “Crucified Woman” and “Crucified Lovers.” (She was also the daughter in Ozu’s “Tokyo Story.”

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Although Mizoguchi’s great theme was the oppression of women, what I’d say is the main part in “Sanshô ” is that of Zushiô. IMO the most outstanding performance in the film is that of Masahiko Kato as the ten-year-old Zushiô. Like Christian Bale decades later in “Empire of the Sun,” he has to go from a cocky, arrogant youth of high social standing to desperate circumstances. Like Bale, Kato was totally convincing in both.

As Zushiô ten years later Hanayagi Yoshiaki has to make the transition in the opposite direction, and is also totally convincing both as the brutalized (and brutalizing) slave and in his father’s old position as governor of a province (after a harrowing escape and an almost equally harrowing attempt to speak to the primary advisor of the emperor). Hanayagi was chunky and bow-legged, not at all movie-star handsome, but once in governor robes managed to look elegant as well as determined to right the wrong of slavery, starting with Sanshô (an un-nuanced role performed by Shindô Eitarô, who had played a supporting role to some acclaim in Mizoguchi’s “Gion bayashi” (released as “A Geisha” and as “Gion Music Festival” in English) and would also return in “Crucified Woman,” “Crucified Lovers”, and “Empress Yank Kwei Fei.”). I think that Hanayagi is particularly good as seeming to have forgotten his father and adjusted to the brutality of a trusted servant of Sancho, which makes the return of the repressed compassion for others all the more impressive.

Why Sanshô is the title character puzzles me. Perhaps because Anju and Zushiô are known by different names through most of the film? Anyway, neither Kato nor Hanayagi went on to other notable performances.

Shimizu Masao is impressive as the compassionate governor Masauji Taira, whose exile for protecting starving peasants from tax increases and military drafting set the catastrophes that befall his family in motion. His nobility is manifest, but very costly for those he loves and inculcates with his vision of mercy (appropriately enough, it is an image of the bodhisattva of mercy, Kannon (Guan-yin in Chinese) that is Zushiô’s only possession, as well as being the key to identifying him twice within the film). (His three maxims, which he has his son repeat before Masauiji rides off into exile are: (1) Without mercy, a man is not a human being; (2) Be hard on yourself but merciful to others (3) Men are created equal and everyone is entitled to happiness.” The last is a very utopian and not represented by anyone in any of the Mizoguchi films I’ve seen or read about!)

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In bonus features on the Criterion edition, Sato Tadao and the film’s assistant director Tanaka Tokuzo make very clear that Mizoguchi focused on the actors (in the generic—more on the actresses than the actors). They recall that Mizoguchi did not tell the actors what to do, how to play their part. He constantly urged them to “Reflect!” by which he meant to play their scenes reacting to the other characters (who generally were in the same frame). Like William Wyler, Mizoguchi seems to have been largely unable to articulate what he wanted, but more than able to reject what he didn’t want.

The long takes (though not with the fixed camera set-up for which Ozu was famous) flowed from his demand for playing the scenes to the hilt (or, IMO, sometimes beyond it!). He had a penchant for crane shots, but trembled with emotion so much that the great cameraman Miyagawa Kazuo banned him from the crane.

The bonus features make very clear that with Mizoguchi focused on the performances, the look of “Sanshô ” should be credited to Miyagawa (1908-1999). Having just watched a bonus feature about Miyagawa on the Criterion “Rashômon” disc, and aware that Miyagawa shot the legendarily beautifully composed Mizoguchi films of the 1950s (Lady Oyû:, Ugestsu, Crucified Woman, Crucified Lovers, Gion bayashi, Legend of the Taira Clan, Street of Shame) as well as Kurosawa’s 1950 “Rashômon” (a revolutionary film both in narrative structure and in black-and-white cinematography) and “Yojimbo” (1961), along with Ozu’s “Floating Weeds” and Ichikawa’s “Temple of the Golden Pavilion” and “Ototo,” and working on Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad” and Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” (and earning his rice on a series of Zatôichi movies; Miyagawa also lensed a series of films for Yoshimura Kozaburo, Shinoda Masahiro, and Mori Kazuo that are unavailable here, alas), I am quite ready to credit Miyagawa for much of the greatness in this and other Mizoguchi films of the 1950s.

Planning and executing the famous panning shots (the most famous of which occur at the beginning and at the end of the very long and unshowily intense final scene) were Miyagawa’s job. And the opening “through the woods they go” that resonates with the through the woods the woodcutter [Shimura Takashi] goes” opening of Rashômon is the work of the same master cinematographer.

(Mizoguchi is clearly an “auteur” for thematic continuities, but the visual grandeur for which he has been widely lauded are not his. He did not plan the shots (storyboard them) as Kurosawa and Alfred Hitchcock did. Films have multiple authors. One for “Sanshô” whom I have not mentioned is novelist Mori Ogai, whose telling of the ancient tale was the basis for the screenplay.)

The sound and picture quality of the transfer is outstanding. I’m sure I have much to learn from the commentary track of Jeffrey Angles when I am prepared to play “Sanshô” again (I have no doubt that it is a great movie, but it is a grueling experience—a film that one venerates rather than “likes.” As I began by saying, I was “knocked out” by my initial viewing of the film. ) I found the bonus features very insightful, not just about the film but about Japanese performance aesthetics. Both the film and the DVD deserve five-star ratings.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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