Friday, February 20, 2009

REVIEW: Sansho the Bailiff

山椒大夫 (Sanshô Dayû)

Released: 1954

Kenji Mizoguchi

Kinuyo Tanaka
Yoshiaki Hanayagi
Kyoko Kagawa
Masao Shimizu
Eitaro Shindo

Running Time: 124 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the term “masterpiece” recently, and what it means to use it to describe a piece of art. I often think that it is tossed around a little too freely, and that people don’t always truly understand what it implies. For me, a masterpiece is something that successfully represents a high standard of quality; that demonstrates and embodies artistic control, confidence and met ambition. The simplest way to understand the word properly would be in terms of painters who would aspire to reach a certain degree of skill and knowledge in their art before embarking on a masterpiece – that is, a master’s piece.

Following this specific definition, one film that undoubtedly deserves the title of masterpiece is Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff”, which he made towards the end of his long career. Set in Japan’s late Heian period, it tells the story of a brother and sister who are separated first from their father, a good-hearted governor who is banished for disobeying his superiors, then their mother when they are kidnapped by slave traders. They eventually land at the feet of the notorious slave trader Sansho and are subjected to years of tiring labor within his manor. Together, they endure many terrible ordeals, unsure if they will ever be reunited with the rest of their family again.

Made in the same vein of brilliance as Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu” and based on a centuries-old folk legend, “Sansho” constitutes one of the great filmmaker’s most impressive efforts. The beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the minimalist score, the searing performances, the scope and pacing – each element of the film is meticulously designed and polished, all contributing to one of the few truly transcendent experiences in cinema. Deservingly, “Sansho” won much critical acclaim following its release and was one of two Japanese Silver Lion winners at the 1954 Venice Film Festival, the other being a little film called “Seven Samurai”.

Matching “Sansho’s” technical merits is its heartbreaking emotional atmosphere. Even though it is wondrous to behold, the film can simultaneously be a pretty tough watch as, in true Mizoguchi fashion, it offers little to no mercy to its characters as its tragic tale unfolds. Initially, viewers may even be hard-pressed to find any substantial morals amongst its misery, though they are certainly present. Among its constant reminders that the world can be a harsh place, the film doesn’t forsake the power of hope entirely, and through all of their hardships, the members of its broken family somehow never fully surrender the possibility that they will one day meet again.

For those who have ever sought a solid example of Mizoguchi’s much-celebrated greatness or a genuine masterpiece, “Sansho the Bailiff” is the film to seek out. Though (or perhaps because) it is set in a realm very much defined by physical limitations (especially through the slave camp, the many failed escape attempts that occur and, most hauntingly, a mournful song that signifies the children’s only real piece of news about their mother in years), it bears a great spiritual weight, an effect achieved by both its eerie beauty and unwavering focus on human morality. Splendid from its opening moments right up to its unforgettable final scene, “Sansho the Bailiff” is one of the greatest treasures of Japanese cinema.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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