Here is another of Japan’s loveliest and most sorrowful of films, restored to life and freed from the patina of decades of damage that hid its beauty. Sansho the Bailiff was one of the first Japanese movies I rented as part of my cinematic education about Japan, a process which started with a theatrical screening of Kurosawa’s Ran back in 1985 and has persisted to this day. Like director Kenji Mizoguchi’s equally-saddening Ugetsu (another movie I saw at the same time, possibly back-to-back with it), the only copies available were VHS transfers; I was unlucky enough to rent a copy of Sansho that sported nasty creases in the tape for the first five minutes. The luminous beauty of the movie still showed through despite all that, and I longed for a day when I could see it again without multiple generations of print damage and analog tape artifacts obscuring it. Here we are at last.
Most discussions of humanism in Japanese film begin and end with Akira Kurosawa. Mizoguchi, a vanguard of Japanese film since the Twenties, also had his own lyrical strain of humanism that he fueled by evoking Japan’s past, and he did it in a way that was lovely and sad without being pretentiously sentimental. Sansho itself was derived from acclaimed author Ogai Mori’s retelling of a story that dates back almost a thousand years. But it never feels like a Classics Illustrated version of anything, and you need no knowledge of the original story to be moved by it here. If anything, you might even be at an advantage walking in cold.
Sansho takes place at the end of Japan’s Heian era of courtly elegance, when the refined aristocracy found the ground crumbling away beneath its feet as the warrior classes ascended to power. One such nobleman, the governor of a province, is exiled when he disobeys what he believes to be the cruel and inhumane diktats laid down by the soldiers who now hold sway over him. He sends his wife and children off on their own so they might have more of a chance of survival than he alone will (he’s fairly certain he is doomed). He also wants to ensure, however he can, that his children will not fall to the level of their oppressors. “Without mercy, man is nothing more than a beast,” he tells his son. “Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” He entrusts the boy, Zushio, with a family treasure—a statuette of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which the young man will carry in a bag around his neck like a badly-needed millstone of morality.
The family doesn’t have far to go before falling prey to those who have no mercy. They’re tricked by a kindly-looking shrine priestess into being borne away by boatmen, who then separate the mother from her children and drag the boy and girl off to be sold into slavery. Such things are sadly commonplace throughout the land, and the manor they’re sold off to—the household of Sansho the Bailiff, a wealthy and influential figure—is a circus of misery where dozens of slaves toil under the lash of their master. Sansho himself, a grandfatherly figure with a bizarre brush-bristle of a beard sprouting from his face, disdains mercy even when he has plenty of opportunities to demonstrate it. When a runaway is dragged back into the enclave, he applies a punishment that has become all too familiar to the slave populace: an iron brand to the forehead. Other attempted escapees have their tendons sliced.
Sansho’s own son has grown sickened by the agony he witnesses ever day, and as a way to perhaps atone for his own complicity in all of it he takes the two children under his wing, going so far as to rechristen them so that they will not be associated with their home province (and thus bring danger to their own families again). He abandons his father’s estate to become a monk, and in his absence the children grow. The girl, “Shinobu” (actually Anju), and the boy, “Mutsu”, grow up, and at the same time grow apart: Zushio chooses complicity with Sansho and becomes something of a trustee, even going so far as to apply the brand to a runaway himself. But he cannot completely ignore the pangs of conscience gnawing at him from inside, and one day there is a chance for escape that may not come again. The way this scene plays out tells you everything you need to know about Anju and Zushio’s respective moralities: by that point, it takes an act of self-endangerment on Anju’s part to compel Zushio to do something brave. More than that, sadly, I cannot reveal here without ruining crucial points about how the movie unfolds.
I will say that the rest of the film is ultimately about Zushio’s maturation as a moral creature. He hides out with Sansho’s son—again, at the risk of endangering them both—and with his aid brings a desperate petition to one of the lords of the province. Much to his shock Zushio is recognized for being the nobility he claims to be, and is restored to a position of influence from which he attempts to undo the wretchedness done to him. But even after using his power to free Sansho’s slaves and drive the man into exile, Zushio is still worried he will not be able to use his power to bring justice and mercy to the people he most urgently wants to have it: his mother and sister. Nevertheless, he must try. He has spent far too long doing nothing or being openly complicit in the face of evil; to do anything less than to abandon himself fearlessly to that task would not be enough.
Japanese period films are typically assembled with a great deal of attention to detail, and one of the theories I’ve held about why this is the case is because the craftsmanship to create a great many of the things we see on screen has not died out or become a museum item, but has been transmitted across generations as a living art. Even apart from that, Sansho has endless lovely bits of period detail in every frame the way Gojoe also did—the straw-covered traveling boots worn by the upper classes (as opposed to the bare rope sandals worn by everyone else); the construction of the houses and lean-tos and temples; the diabolical-looking makeup worn by the prostitutes Zushio encounters when searching for his mother and sister. Fashionable people of both sexes in that era shaved off their eyebrows and blackened their teeth with powdered iron—things which are probably just accurate period details, but here the net effect is to render such characters as that much less human.
“This is a story from a time when men had not yet awakened as human beings,” the movie’s introduction tells us. Awakened, that is, in the sense of being aware of the suffering of others, and building societies that understand that. One could argue we are still not awake yet, since much of the good that comes into the world seems to come from small-scale institutions like the family rather than the world at large. A fellow NetFlix user posting under the name “LL 661660” commented on the importance of family coherence in surviving in any unsympathetic society as a running theme in the few Japanese movies he’d seen so far. Whether in Heian-era Japan, or WWII-era Manchuria, the same mechanics seemed to apply. “Why it is that families can be held together by adhering to high moral values when the society at large in which the family is embedded preys on itself?” he wrote. Possibly because morality, mercy, justice and everything else we call humane are best instituted from the bottom up and the inside out—or else they mean little, and perhaps nothing.