“Sansho the Bailiff” – Chris Luedtke

More often than not, when we are fed a film that has great intentions, its characters often do too. In most cases, these intentions require a great deal of power in order to fulfill them. Be they righteous, we usually expect the righteous to prevail by destroying the evil power. Sansho the Bailiff sees this idea but takes a much different approach to it, an approach that is complicated, precise, and utterly unique.

Zushiô (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) were once a part of the upper class. That is, until their father, the governor of a small piece of Japanese land, makes a stand against superior officers, thus casting his family out of the government and out onto the streets, where they must run and hide in order to survive. However, Zushiô and Anju are soon separated from their mother Nakagimi (Teruko Omi) after being ambushed by a group of slave traders. Zushiô and Anju soon find themselves confronting the cruel Sansho, a slave owner for a private manor. Zushiô and Anju must struggle to stay alive and keep up with the harsh conditions. But as the years pass by, Zushiô and Anju find their situation only more futile. Can they escape the clutches of Sansho, or will they die among his ranks as mere slaves?

Director Kenji Mizoguchi has crafted a careful piece of work here. Sansho the Bailiff is subtle in its story but keeps us trapped as viewers. Like the slaves, we have no way to escape what’s going on because the film is so enticing. The melancholy overtones are, dare I say it, almost underdone. Had Ingmar Bergman taken on this piece of work, we’d have much more despair than we end up leaving with. The film is filthy, sets are dirty, and most things appear to be in wild disarray. This only helps to add to the filthy feeling of slave-owning. Sansho may keep his hands clean for the most part, but his men are shedding blood for him.

Pacing is key here. It takes a long time for Zushiô and Anju to grow up, but this also helps us to come to terms with how long their characters really had to wait to act upon anything. The most interesting thing about the characters is their quest. It may seem simple enough, but Zushiô manages to make things complex and exacting. The vendetta Zushiô wishes to carry out against Sansho is one of not just simple blood shedding but also absolute removal. Every step that is taken to lead up to this is one that we can’t help but feel awed with. Zushiô’s slavery puts a crafty thorn in his side, but the best part about his character is that he follows an old philosophical teaching give power to those who don’t want it. Zushiô is one of these guys who doesn’t want power, yet at the same time, he needs to acquire it in order to exact his full vengeance.

Sansho the Bailiff is a film of great actions that evoke powerful emotions. It’s depressing, smart, and, above all, complicated. There is so much debate that could be thrown into this, but bringing any of it to the surface might ruin the experience. There are some minor flaws, mostly in the fact that some parts are just too predictable. Then again, there are some very surprising moments, too. Sansho deserves its place in cinema history as one of the most original takes on a classic concept: “Show me the hero, and I’ll write you the tragedy.” See it.

Rating: ★★★½

-Chris Luedtke

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