While I have a general opinion on early Japanese filmmakers Kon Ichikawa and Yasujiro Ozu (and, of course, a profound love for Akira Kurosawa), I don’t have enough experience with Kenji Mizoguchi to really get a handle on him as a filmmaker, especially going into this one having only seen two other films of his, one of which was so early in Japanese cinema that it basically doesn’t count when one judges it with the early 1950s explosion of Japanese filmmakers onto the world stage. That’s a really roundabout way of saying I didn’t know what to expect from Sansho the Bailiff. It’s been a while since I was really entrenched in early cinema; of the films remaining for me on the list, this is the earliest, and one of the very few remaining black-and-white films I had left. Still, even with me being less accustomed to these attributes as I was in the past, there was an awful lot to appreciate about Sansho the Bailiff.
Zushio and Anju are two children living with their mother in feudal Japan. Their father ends up banished to a far-off land, and the three of them journey to meet up with him some years later, but are tricked into being sold into slavery, where they are separated from their mother. The children end up in the employ of Sansho, the titular bailiff (or steward), who is as cruel and unrelenting a master as they could’ve gotten, as well as Taro, Sansho’s son and second-in-command, who is much more kind and understanding of the children’s plight. It is Taro that, knowing they are still too young to attempt to escape successfully, suggests that they weather the storm of being in Sansho’s employ as best as they can for as long as they can, until they are old enough to be able to make it to the town where their mother was sold to. This is a film definitely more concerned with its plot than with anything else, which is a good thing, especially since the plot is rife with conflict and overcoming adversity, which keeps it nice and full through the whole length of the film. Even with the plot being the focus, however, the production value of this one was quite exceptional, replicating the feudal era of Japan so completely that I’d be amazed if virtually all of the work and construction had been done by the production team. It was that that lent itself well enough to the technicals, rather than the cinematography, which was decent but a little too one-shaded, as I’ve found early Asian cinema to roughly be. I will, however, make special mention of the numerous long takes used throughout the film, which somehow added a feeling of intimacy and empathy with the two main characters that would have otherwise been lacking.
It seems everyone who’s seen this has proclaimed it to be an absolute masterpiece. I, however, merely found it very good; it very much tries to grasp at true greatness, but for me it didn’t quite get there. Reading other reviews for this, it might be because of the fact that this is technically a fable, and thus the story was intentionally simplistic in order to cover for moral lessons and themes, and I, for whatever reason, glossed over that aspect of the film and opted to watch it mainly for the story itself. This is one that I think will really differ from person to person on its worth and merit, but generally, I believe a great number of those will find something here. It’s well made, with great production value and a story worth seeing to the very end, which is more than I can say for a good number of films that are similar to this one, so that’s definitely a thumbs-up. I don’t know if I prefer this one or Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, but I can certainly see why both were added to the list.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10