#272. Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

What this first calls to mind is Ikiru and Tokyo Story because, by comparison to Rashomon and Seven Samurai and Ugetsu (and also just considering the general Japanese iconography that we celebrate here in the west), I have a feeling the List’s representation of Japanese culture will skew heavily toward period pieces. Fine by me, but I’m curious about modern Japanese life. Maybe not how Ozu depicts it, with a camera whose patience verges on stagnation, but I thought Kurosawa did something remarkable with Ikiru, showing us a modern Japanese night life without the decorous or mannered restraint that Ozu gives everyone (that he even embodies with his camera).

            And I guess it’s coming to mind because I feel like these stories set in feudal Japan call for a little more brainpower; if not because a viewer needs to process the nuances of costumes and regions and larger-scale conflicts, then because she needs to look past those things toward the simple human drama underneath.

            And the drama at the heart of Sansho the Bailiff is a bit like Ugetsu: there’s displacement, a separation of family, and then enslavement (the hero is enslaved to a ghost in the latter, so it’s kinda different). I’m wondering if these might be distinctly postwar pains that Japanese culture was still struggling with.

            I’m writing this up quite a while after seeing the movie because I thought the story was fairly straightforward and because, apart from the heartache it depicts and inflicts, the angle from which I was planning to come at it was gonna depend mostly on the feeling of vindication and bittersweet triumph that we get at the end when (SPOILERS) the tyrannous Sansho gets his comeuppance form one of the people he persecuted, the one whose sister sacrificed herself so that he could escape the labor camp where they’ve languished for most of the movie, enduring all sorts of privation and disgrace. It got me tripping through that imaginary forest of vengeful thoughts about how I might someday get a chance to go back and flaunt success in the faces of people who doubted and mocked me.

            But then, before sitting down to write it, I went and read what Roger Ebert wrote about it, and looked at some commentary from Criterion, and in realizing how effusive people are about the movie’s brilliance, its emotional resonance, about the fact that it’s the undisputed masterpiece of its wildly prolific director (Kenji Mizoguchi, who made close to a hundred movies before dying at 58), I’m feeling reluctant about that approach, like it’ll make me sound unconscionably petty if my reaction to the movie about profound heartbreak is to basically rub my palms together like Monty Burns and talk longingly about how I yearn to shame people who offended me in the 1990s.

            Sansho is a grueling depiction of slavery such as it’s seldom shown (and more conventionally made manifest): labor camps, the simple brick-wall disabling of rights, torture disguised as discipline—and therein, I think, lies part of my reticence to maybe open myself up to the horror of it, because in the way that some people are particularly affected by depictions of sexual violence, or domestic violence or violence against animals, my Achilles heel is depictions of people being wrongly imprisoned. Constrained. I think it goes back to being a kid and my parents having to arbitrarily scold either me or my brother because we were both equally vehement in our denial of having made some mess or broken something. Both he and I got in trouble for shit we didn’t do, and the authority figure’s flat-out refusal to hear your side of things was always one of the most torturous things for me—and it happened a lot in high school, now that I think about it, most frighteningly when I was coming out of the bathroom one day as a senior and an assistant principal (who was alter fired for making a kid lower his pants in front of a full class) grabbed my arm and pulled me into the main office because someobdy’s mom, sitting in her car out front of the school, had called the gront office to report a slim kid with brown hair, jeans, and a dark shirt selling weed outside.

            I kept telling him I’d been in class, that he was wrong, that I’d never smoked pot in my life (which at that point was true)—all of it fell on deaf ears.

            Nothing came of it and I was back in class before the bell rang but he was telling me all along that he’d call the cops and shit, that I was going to jail—I was an underachieving imbecile with zero prospects of going to an estimable college, so it’s not like that little juvenile arrest would’ve shattered my future or anything, but still, I was a kid and it was terrifying.

            But yeah. Movies like Sansho the Bailiff, that deal with false imprisonment or forced labor or any kind of loss of autonomy, tend to make me exceptionally uncomfortable. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang sparked this up worse than any others.

            So I see what critics are talking about when they address the beauty and agony of Sansho, but I think it says something about my personal headspace that the part I most enjoyed, that most rang my bell, was the final confrontation when Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), our only remaining hero, confronts Sansho (Eitaro Shindo), the man who destroyed his and his sister’s lives and killed and tortured so many others, and he gets to wave his newfound gubernatorial authority to outlaw slavery, to shut Sansho’s shit right down, to humiliate the tyrant in front of his acolytes and victims together.

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