Set during the 11th century, towards the end of Japan's Heian period, Kenji Mizoguchi's 'Sansho the Bailiff' is a fascinating film, both uplifting and depressing, as the director explores an old folk tale about a family struggling against the evil humans are capable of inflicting upon one another.
The film opens with a woman, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), her children, Zushio (Masahiko Kato) and Anju (Keiko Enami), and her female servant Ubatake (Chieko Naniwa) traveling by foot. A flashback reveals her husband, Governor Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu), a kind, generous man who taught his son “a man is not human being without mercy.” Masauji disobeyed a feudal lord he served under and his punishment resulted in his being exiled. His family went to live with Tamaki's brother and after six years they are now going to join him.
While passing through an area known for bandits, an old priestess (Kikue Môri) offers them shelter for the evening and suggests they hasten their trip with the assistance of some men she knows who have boats. Tamaki is thankful for the priestess' kindness, but as the trip commences the next morning she quickly discovers she has mistaken generosity for treachery, a trait clearly not restricted to the rich and powerful. Tamaki is taken to Sado Island, where a life of prostitution awaits her. The children are sold to Sansho the Bailiff (Eitarô Shindô), the richest man in the area, and become his slaves.
Sansho's son Taro (Akitake Kôno) is distraught over his father's behavior and rebels. He takes an interest in the children, and when he learns their story he gives them new names, Mushu and Shinobu respectively, to hide their identities. Ten years pass, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) is 23 and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) is 18. His spirit is crushed. He no longer has a desire to escape and does the work of the guards as seen when he brands an old man whose escape attempt failed. Coincidentally, we see Tamaki suffer for the same transgression with a more severe punishment, which Mizoguchi has occur off screen, but Tamaki's wailing augment the viewer's imagination.
A young girl arrives from Sado Island and though she does not know anyone named Tamaki, she offers Anju the belief that her mother is still alive. When Zushio and Anju take Namiji (Noriko Tachibana) out to the forest to die because she is ill, the sister convinces her brother to escape, offering to distract the guards for as long as she can. As Zushio works to find his parents, he is able to become a part of the power structure that caused his family's separation. With his father's teachings still in his mind, he attempts to overturn the system to benefit those at the bottom.
As director, Mizoguchi allows the story and actors captivate the viewer in 'Sansho the Bailiff'. The pacing is a bit slow at times, but those scenes play out in a natural way that reflects the tedious life of a slave. Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, who previously worked with Mizoguchi on 'Ugetsu' and Kurosawa on 'Rashomon', and his team do a marvelous job with the photography. The shot of Anju through the foliage as she escapes Sansho guards is particularly well framed. 'Sansho the Bailiff' is thought provoking because the reward for doing the right thing and sacrificing for others is the awareness that the right thing was done, as exemplified by the state the characters are in by the conclusion. Not all who choose good benefit from the decision, and not all who choose evil are punished.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Sansho the Bailiff' (#386 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 80-page booklet containing "The Lessons of Sansho," an essay by author Mark Le Fanu, and two stories the film is based on, Ogai Mori's "Sansho the Steward" and "An Account of the Life of the Deity of Mount Iwaki," a story that had been passed on orally for generations.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. The liner notes reveal "this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Dayacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image Systems' DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.
After the opening credits and as titles reveal background regarding the story about to unfold, the image becomes jittery. Thankfully, this problem only occurs during this one scene. Another major issue is the many dissolves because they cause a frequent loss of sharpness during the edits and then the clarity of the image returns, noticeably popping back into place. Also, when Zushio and Anju are out gathering brush to cover Namiji's dying body, one scene contains a bit of dirt at the top of the frame.
Deep blacks, solid whites, and the many shades of gray help contribute to strong contrast. Faint white scratches appear but are rare. Focus is mostly sharp throughout with occasional soft spots due to age. Strong details can be seen in texture of costumes such as patterns on silk robes and the strands of straw in barns and on the ground. No major digital artifacts were seen.
The audio is available in Japanese LPCM 1.0 and "was remastered at 24-bit from two optical soundtrack prints. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation."
The nearly 60-year-old source doesn't show its age in terms of wear but does reveal its limitations as a mono track. The dynamic range is narrow. The flutes on the score are the main items that hit the high end and there's not much of a bottom. Dialogue is clear. The music fidelity is low. All in all, it's what longtime foreign films fans are used to and likely as good as it can get, but a modern audience may be disappointed if their expectations aren’t set right.
For those who only know of Japanese cinema through the work of Akira Kurosawa ('Yojimbo', 'Seven Samurai'), 'Sansho the Bailiff' serves as wonderful introduction to his directing peer, Kenji Mizoguchi, who created a thoughtful film about the capacities of the human spirit. The Criterion Collection delivers a Blu-ray with video that impresses where it can, audio that is adequate as expected, and extras that are repurposed.