Mizoguichi’s ‘Sansho the Bailiff’ (1954) is filled with some of the most delicate sounds and imagery to grace the screen: sunlight on water, a half-remembered childhood song whispering through reeds, ripples extending over a perfect surface. Yet don’t be too easily seduced by such diaphanous appearances because this film will emotionally pummel you into a pulp; it’s like being punched in the gut by a wisp of mist.
11th century Japan, and the young son and daughter of a respected and kindly lord are kidnapped and sold as slaves to the sadistic Sansho the bailiff. Their mother is taken away to Sado and forced into prostitution. The children remember their father’s parting words of advice — to always show mercy no matter what — yet as they both grow older there’s the danger that living as slaves under Sansho could result in them not only forgetting their parents but also their humanity and compassion. If that happens then all is lost.
Yet when an unexpected distant memory provides a moment of clarity before it is lost forever a chance for escape presents itself, even if this comes at a terrible cost. What follows is a desperate attempt to discover if compassion is present in this world of pain and, if not, to provide some where there is none.
Mizoguichi’s directing style is firmly controlled and deliberate to the point that you don’t quite realise just what the film is doing to you until it is too late and you’re on the cusp of being emotionally destroyed. It really creeps up on you to the extent that for the first 45 minutes or so I was unsure if the movie was working for me or not — I was impressed but not fully gripped. Yet when that decisive moment of ‘remembrance of humanity’ occurs the commitment and engagement levels become so intense they’re fully irreversible.
Not only that but the themes of ‘Sansho’ become more apparent and they are strong, deep and universal. Sacrifice, the cost of mercy, parental love, the renunciation of power, how does a single human being navigate within a world that could annihilate in an instant; all these reveal themselves within a narrative thread that becomes as vital as existence itself and executed with expert and heartbreaking precision.
That moment when that chance of escape from the inhuman Sansho presents itself is a jolt of hope but that hope is accompanied by one of the most devastating sacrifices put to film, a sacrifice rendered even more powerful by the fact that all we witness are ripples on the surface of a pond. Once again, delicate waveforms are carrying almost unbearable messages.
There’s another moment when a character is incapacitated to stop further escape attempts and even though, or maybe especially because, it happens off-screen it’s gut-wrenching in both nature and its implications regarding the almost total destruction of hope. I wanted to turn away but to do so would not only be futile but would also be to reject the bravery the film demands of us.
It’s this unflinching view of life that’s so overwhelming. For example, there’s a section of the film that covers similar ground to the ballad of Narayama where the dying are carried up a mountain to perish. Yet unlike in, say, Imamura’s version of the tale there’s no dark humour or cosmic wink to soften the blow.
The final scene of ‘Sansho the Bailiff’ didn’t hit me as emotionally hard as I was expecting but that’s for one very specific reason — I consciously had my guard up because I knew if I let this film even a fraction of a millimeter through my emotional armour that it would have destroyed me, fully and totally. It is almost too devastating to contemplate and I’m still incapable of shaking this movie off me several days later.
‘Sansho the Bailiff’ is phenomenal. It moves like a ripple, sways like a reed and is as light as a distant song (the sound design here is mindboggling in its sophistication and delicacy) yet it contains, and hits with, the power of a tsunami. That’s what ‘Sansho the Bailiff’ is — a force of total destruction where mercy will not save you but holding onto it might, just might, help remind you that you, and everyone else, are human. It’s enough to make you break down in your mother’s arms and uncontrollably weep.