Sansho the Bailiff is a 1954 movie by Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi, set in medieval Japan.
I struggle pretty often with foreign films. Even when I am impressed with the quality, there’s the strain of subtitles. Then the older the film is, and the more remote its setting in terms of time and place is from me, the more I struggle to understand and stay interested, due to the unfamiliarity factor.
So by all rights, no matter how good this film is, it should have been an “I’ll force myself to watch this because it’s good for me” movie experience.
Instead, my level of interest, the degree to which I cared about the characters, cared about the story, and wanted to continue to watch would rank no worse than around the middle of the hundreds of movies I’ve written about so far, and probably a bit above. That’s even with the handicaps.
The movie it most puts me in mind of in that respect is Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which also was a subtitled film set about as remote as could be from my life.
Sansho the Bailiff is based on a popular Japanese folk tale. A local official—a governor of his province, or whatever the designation would have been in medieval Japan—runs afoul of his higher ups by treating his people too well, including resisting efforts to force all the soldier-age males into the army at a time that their absence would be devastating for the local agriculture.
He is forced from his post—almost setting off a local riot in his support—and given a “transfer” which is really a form of exile to the middle of nowhere on some remote island at the far reaches of Imperial Japanese territory. He either is not allowed to or chooses not to bring his wife and young son and daughter with him.
Upon departing, he implores his son especially to always live in a conscientious and moral way, and never to lose his sense of mercy, for to lose that is to lose one’s humanity.
Some years later, the mother and children try to follow the father to where he has been transferred. But they are betrayed en route and delivered into the hands of slave traders, who don’t know or particularly care that they are minor nobility. The mother is separated from the children. We follow the children.
The children end up sold to the evil Sansho the Bailiff, a landowner and corrupt minor local official. He works his slaves brutally, beats and tortures them, and if any try to escape, they are punished by having a brand seared into their scalp. He discards them out in the wild to die when they are too sick and weak to work anymore.
Even his own young adult son is horrified and disgusted by Sansho’s cruelty. The son learns the children’s secret but laments that there is nothing he can do to save them. He tells them they are too young to attempt to escape and make it on their own, but that if they can somehow hang on and survive a few years, they may have a more realistic chance later, and he will help them if he is in a position to do so. He then withdraws from his father’s property to join a nearby Buddhist monastery.
The bulk of the film then picks up ten years later, with the children now grown, and still enslaved by Sansho. The movie explores such things as whether they are able to retain hope of eventually being reunited with their mother and/or father, whether they succeed in being so reunited, whether they escape from the clutches of Sansho, and whether the son does indeed live up to his father’s words and refuse to let the cruel environment cause him to relinquish his humanity.
There’s a certain simplicity to the story, and unrealistic turnarounds of fortune and such, which fit with its being taken from a folk tale. But there’s still considerable depth and moral seriousness to this film. Its emotional highs and lows are intense without being sappy and manipulative.
The story does not develop in a way that’s predictable from moment to moment, nor does it all lead to a “happily ever after” ending where the family members are all reunited and none the worse for wear.
I’ve rarely read reviews more extreme in their praise than those I read about Sansho the Bailiff. I can’t say I was as emotionally overwhelmed by the film as many people seem to have been. But it did touch me emotionally; I did get caught up in it.
I would watch another Mizoguchi film. This is a clear thumbs up.