Sansho the Bailiff
I am back home after nine days in Italy. This was a wonderful vacation and I can absolutely recommend the region around Alba in Piemonte. Only do not stay too long, it is not good for your waistline. Or your liver.
With me in Italy I brought the movie “Shanso the Bailiff” or “Shanso Dayu” as it is called in Japanese. This is the last movie in the golden year of 1954. By the middle of the week I had finished the movie although I tried to dose it and so I could spend the second half of the week contemplating it. That did not really work, I still do not understand it.
“Shansho the Bailiff” is Kenji Mizoguchi’s attempt at the epic scale movie and half way in it works beautifully. We follow the wife, son and daughter of a regional governor who are forced to flee when the governor is banished by a local warlord. The governor is a virtuous man and he implores on his children to uphold this virtue, especially toward the poor.
Before long however the family falls prey to slave traders. The mother is sold to prostitution and the children to a local steward or bailiff, the eponymous Shanso, who is running a veritable concentration camp.
This is downfall and hardship, but magnificently told using big pictures and a tragic, fatalistic tone. There is no overacting here, if anything there is an acceptance in the fate of life and therefore it is extra poignant to watch the family being separated and cry out for each other. The children actors are good and the cinematography is sublime.
About midway however the movie changes for me to the negative and there are to primary reasons for this.
The children as adults is one reason. We jump ahead ten years in time to when the children have grown up. Anju, the girl, into a sensitive woman who has not forgotten their parents and Zushio the boy, who has accepted life in the camp and figures it is better to punish than being punished. Their life changes when a new girl bring the first news of their mother since they arrived and the Anju is keen on leaving. When the change come however she sacrifices herself so Zushio can get away. Zushio leave for Kyoto, the imperial capital back in the Heian period (a thousand years ago) to plead for his father and the release of his sister.
It is very possible that I simply do not understand the cultural background well enough, but these two characters confuse me. Anju seems all too willing to sacrifice herself in a situation where there is real hope she will be able to get away. As she has no idea where Zushio is going but the general direction of Kyoto she cannot reveal anything. Why is she then so keen to die?
Zushio, who assumed a certain brute dignity in the camp completely throws dignity aside in practically every scene afterward, none more so than when he prostrates himself before the Chief Advisor. It is all screaming and crying and I really want to grip him, slap him on the face and ask him to get a hold on himself. I always thought the Japanese idealized self-control and took pride in their stoicism, but this dude has not of that. Even as a governor, the title he is eventually elevated to, he is shrill and can barely (and usually not) keep his hysterics under control. I probably misunderstood the cultural context completely, but that guy really annoyed me and I had some difficulty taking him serious as the hero of the story.
My second problem is where this movie is leading to. Okay, so Zushio get powerful enough to get back at Sansho and free the slaves and he manages to find his wreck of a mother, but that does not seem to be the target of the movie. Mizoguchi is trying to say something here and it eludes me. Is it that although Zushio tries to be virtuous he still looses everything? Or that life is torture as his mother sings? Or that slavery and disrespect of people leads to human ruin? I just cannot point my finger at where this is leading. A movie open to interpretation is often a good thing, but here it annoys me because I feel am missing the key.
Still, this is a beautifully made movie, slower than Kurosawa and more brutal than Ozu, this is a different niche in Japanese movie.
Curiously I recently read another story also taking place in the Heian period, Tale of Genji, which I reviewed on the book blog. That one takes the viewing point from the top rather than the bottom, but of the same society. It is interesting how much the viewpoint defines what you see.