I just watched this film again, and I accept the fact that many view it as Mizoguchi's masterpiece, and at least one person thinks it is the greatest film ever made. So here are my thoughts, I hope they fit in one post.
Almost as fierce a debate as who Japan’s greatest director is, is what particular film is the best of each said director. The big three (Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi) contrast sharply in style, and their films are all in their own world, but the debate as to who the auteur supreme is, still continues. As for Mizoguchi his style was elegance. No other director used such beautiful scenery to contrast such horrible suffering. It is also safe to say that no one suffers quite like someone in a Mizoguchi film. Sansho the Bailiff is rank with suffering, the cruelty of man, and some of the best cinematography you’ll ever find.
One of the present themes in Sansho the Bailiff is good luck followed by incredible bad luck. A prime example comes when Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), her two children and their maid are traveling to meet her husband. They meet a “priestess” who offers them food and shelter, and arranges for their travel plans. They are grateful for her help, but then the trick is played. After this kind gesture from this woman they are separated and sold into slavery, the children to the cruel Sansho (Eitaro Shindo) and Tanaka to a brothel.
This sets up the other present theme, which is that the world may be a cruel place, but there are people who care and will help. In many ways this may be Mizoguchi’s most humanistic film. From the advice of Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu) we are given the message of the film. It is that “Man without mercy is not a human being. Be tough on yourself, but merciful to others.” Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) tries his best to live up to those words, but for a time forgets their meaning.
It is hard to describe one’s feeling about the film. I may admit to not having a heart beat, because I couldn’t really feel for these people. Mizoguchi bombarded us with too much misery that it becomes hard to swallow. It is nowhere near as extreme as Life of Oharu, arguably the most pessimistic film ever made, but it is hardly light hearted. The most effective scene in the film is the reunion between Zushio and his mother. The reason this becomes effective is because the film lets up a little before. Zushio escapes and becomes Governor. He frees the slaves and things are getting on track. He is dealt one more blow by finding of his sister’s (Kyoko Kagawa) suicide, but since we already knew about it, the effect has already been made. This primes us for a very touching conclusion that should still move you even if the two hours preceding it failed to.
My only complaint is that one more bit of “the world is a horrible place” was thrown in. I ask for what reason Tamaki had to go blind? It couldn’t have been enough that she suffered so, lost her family, was sold into prostitution, and was living a life of exile. On top of that she had to have lost her eyesight. This seems manipulative, and I offer it as proof that the film is clearly melodrama. With any melodrama though, the way to enjoy it is to accept it as such. Mizoguchi worked well in melodrama, and as long as you know what to expect, you can have a lot of fun with it.
Mizoguchi’s directorial style makes sitting through any of his films worth the time. Sansho the Bailiff was made as Mizoguchi was approaching his creative and commercial peak. Ugetsu was making him internationally known, so he had all the confidence necessary walking into this film. He also had the benefit of a couple dozen movies behind him. The camera does move here, but not in a ridiculous obvious way. It has a graceful presence. It tracks when it needs to, but primarily keeps its distance. It never gets closer than a medium close up in the entire film, and that is only during the reunion.
By keeping his distance it forces us to notice the composition. Since the thirties Mizoguchi had been a master at staging in depth, and this film is no exception. He keeps all planes in focus, and it is like watching a separate film paying attention to what is in the background. Keeping with the fluidity is a nearly unified use of dissolves. The pattern is to have a simple cut within a scene, but nearly every transition is done via dissolve. A dissolve always has a more graceful effect than a cut, and considering Mizoguchi is one of the most fluid directors, this fits his style perfectly.
Music is never really a focal point of Japanese films, and Mizoguchi nearly does away with his score completely. The most memorable bit of music comes from Tamaki’s song, heard throughout the film, although always sung without the aid of music. The reunion is a prime example of a scene shot with no music. It is only as the camera returns to the establishing shot of the sea that the score comes on to cue the end title. That moment is very well the only noticeable use of music in the film, and it does the job of hammering home that powerful moment. Mizoguchi is wise to keep music out of the reunion dialogue. It is too easy to use a dramatic score to highlight a poignant moment in a film, but Mizoguchi knows that this scene is powerful enough, and his style is not manipulation. Unlike Hitchcock, he seems to respect the intelligence of his audience, and lets us experience one of his film, without ever feeling overwhelmed by style or craft.
I can’t say that this is his best film, or a flawless masterpiece. Sure there are many great films that are flawed, but I lacked the emotional impact I felt was necessary. Perhaps if Mizoguchi had been a little more manipulative, it might have worked, but it seems that his greatest asset looks like his greatest fault. So I’ll respect the effort, but for now resign myself to the fact that this film is a damn good film, but not exactly a masterpiece.