Monday, April 16, 2012

Sansho the Bailiff - Japanese Film with a Humanist Message

By Gary Berg-Cross
Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô dayû)- made in1954)" was shown at the National Gallery East as part of ‘Japan Spring on the Mall’ as well as for the film Washington, D.C. International Film Festival (Filmfest DC). I went to see it on the recommendation , you might say, of Roger Ebert and Orson Wells. They see it as one of the best of all Japanese films. In part such critics & artists are attracted to Mizoguchi's quietly elegant cinematic style with vividly framed black and white images that linger in the mind. Ebert simple says that Mizoguchi films let you “not simply watch a narrative, but feel it and experience it as well.”

Reviewers also like that Mizoguchi closely observes early compositional rules of the cinema. The Sansho character travels in space and time and screen movements to left in a frame suggests backward in time, while those to the right, go forward in time. Upward movement is hopeful, while downward is ominous. Like sinister music, the movie’s charters stop their upper left movement and travel to the lower right of the frame. We know they are descending into a dismal and dark future. It is great to have this cinematic quality, but these only add to the rich storyline that opens like a cherry blossom - a humanistic retelling of a venerated Japanese folk tale.
The tale is set dimly in the 11th century Heian period during Japan’s medieval feudalism, making it unlike most Japanese historical dramas involving later samurai knights and their honor code. The story starts with a provincial governor, Lord Taira, defending his peasants, on principle. from being unfairly conscripted into the army. When the peasants protest he refuses to punish them. His compassion brings us a temporary halt to injustice. but he is quickly overruled by a general. As a result he and his family are punished with separate exiles. On the verge of being exiled and separated from his family Taira speaks to his very young son Zushio about guiding principles:
” I wonder if you'll become a stubborn man like me. You may be too young to understand, but hear me out anyway. Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.”
The story jumps ahead six years and we see the wife and children walking on their way to re-join the father. Zushio, the son, and daughter Anju talk proudly of their father and are told a simplified version of his father’s principle of compassion, translated into English as:
Without mercy, man is not a human being."
But ideals and virtues like mercy are seen infrequently in this Dickensian world with waves of misery and harshness. The mother and children are captured by slave traders and separately sold into slavery as they journey. The mother is transported to an island and sold to a brothel as a courtesan. The young son and daughter are taken in the opposite direction and sold to Sansho the bailiff. He oversees and runs for profit a “private” manor under the corrupt crony protection to a distant part of government called Udaijin or Minister of the right. But the 1% elite baliffs and ministers provide not justice here. They are profiteers from slavery and conditions for slaves are deplorable, without fairness or justice from the rulers, who haven’t a glimmer of compassion. But some of the slaves have compassion and are upset that children as young as them are “bought and sold, treated like animals, and nobody questions it.” In this grim world the children have little hope and are given advice to bide their time and grow into adults if they ever want to escape back to their parents. But there is virtue among the slaves who keep a sense of humanity and evoke the basic good in others around them. One overseer named Taro gives his disappointed view of things:
“I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them. They're ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot come true. If you wish to live honestly with your conscience, keep close to the Buddha.”
Here Buddhism like the virtues of Lord Taira and the peasants represents ancient and traditional strengths that endure temporary change. The films first image glides ancient stones deeply embedded and rooted in the ground. These megalithic monuments push ever so clearly up out of the dirt that the slave compound has deposited. They seem to symbolize the resilient solidity of ancient traditions, and the possibility of cultural continuity.
The story changes suddenly when a new slave girl arrive from Sado. Zushio’s sister Anju hears the girls singing a song with her and Zushio’s names in it. Their mother has used an ancient means of song to reach them. She has created a memetic song that travels to then with a simple message, "Isn't life torture?" At great cost the children effect an escape with Anju insisting that Zushio save a dying women as part of his escape to Kyoto to get help and justice from the officials. On his father’s good name he gets some conditional help and a position of some power, but is advised again to be practical and wait. His response and its outcome is one of those pleasure-pain points in a meaningful story.
At the story’s conclusion we have traveled to Sano Island for a grim recapitulation of "Isn't life torture?" These last images are of a beach landscape recently devastated by a tsunami – one of several we are told. We are left with the image of people stoically sweeping up what remains after cycles of violence. Virtue has not saved them, but the people in the center of the frame with a chance to move left and forward.

Sansho the Bailiff is available on Netflicks.

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