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The Criterion Collection presents
"No torture can make a dead person speak."
DVD ReviewMovies at their best delight us, but on some level, it's myths that nourish us, and it takes a certain boldness to make a film that tries to bring to bear all of the power of myth. What's so extraordinary about Sansho the Bailiff, on some level, is that it's got the trappings and the structure of a fairy tale, and is likely to conjure up comparisons to everything from Hansel and Gretel to King Arthur and Excalibur to Hamlet. And it's a film made with such grace and fluidity that it more than justifies its place in the grand pantheon—Keni Mizoguchi has been underrepresented on DVD for far too long (though Criterion's release of Ugetsu was surely a fine start), and this Sansho release is in many respects a marvel.
The film starts with sort of a forbidding opening scroll, informing us that it's set in "an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings," and we're thrust immediately into a Joseph Campbell sort of world—there's unrest in a medieval Japanese farming town, for the emperor wants to fight his wars and needs soldiers and taxes, and the farmers don't care to give up either. Zushio and Anju, a young brother and sister, see the toll that duty takes on their family, for their father has a higher sense of obligation, and goes off to fight. Before he leaves, however, he wants to impart a sense of duty in his children, to teach them to do right by others, and that if they do, they will be paid back in kind. One of the fundamental tensions of the film, then, becomes about the children's belief system—are they to take their father at their word, even as his fundamental faith in the decency of mankind is essentially and completely belied by all of their life experience? Is it possible that the great patriarch was flat-out wrong, even deluded? And if so, what moral moorings are left for his children?
Quickly though it's more than just their souls that are at stake—the film jumps ahead ten years, with Zushio and Anju wandering the wilderness with their mother, seeking a better path in a time of lawlessness. They are seduced by the kindness of strangers, and pay brutally for their naïveté—Tamaki, their mother, is forced to become a courtesan, while Zushio and Anju are sold into slavery and given aliases designed to sever them from their past. The rest of the film is more or less their attempts to reunite the family that has been rent apart, and to hold on to any last shreds of decency in a world that's Hobbesian, nasty, brutish and short. The lives of the slaves are especially awful—attempted runaways are branded on their foreheads or have their tendons severed, and it's a film with an extraordinary amount of violence just outside of the frame, making much of it deeply unsettling. The title character is the great lord of the estate on which Zushio and Anju are enslaved—he's more of a sheriff or a warden than a bailiff, certainly, very much in the vein of Simon Legree. It's a movie in which hopes and dreams are extinguished routinely, and in which revenge, even when achieved, feels hollow—and yet it's oddly not entirely without hopefulness, for there's a desperate humanity in the family, their desire to reunite, the childlike hope that endures through the very worst that the world has to offer.
And one of the things that's so extraordinarily triumphant about the film is Mizoguchi's technical mastery. As film historian Jeffrey Angles points out in an astute commentary track, much of the film's compositional scheme is borrowed from scroll prints, and the movie has amazing depth of space—frequently characters are set back in a desolate landscape, or movement occurs along the Z axis, or simultaneously in the background, middle ground and foreground, in a way that's busy but choreographed, often baroque but never anarchic. And Mizoguchi and his cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, favor high angle shots, which don't impart a sense of detachment but allow us to take in the grand pageant that rushes up at us. Mizoguchi isn't afraid of empty space, or empty frames; and yet your fascination watching the movie will never lag, for it's a feast for many of your senses. The acting style is heavily influenced by Kabuki and Noh, so it's got a presentational aspect that American audiences may find alien, especially considering it was made at the height of the Actors Studio influence in Western acting; but on some level that almost adds to the timelessness of this tale set centuries ago, but one which mines emotional terrain about family and disillusionment that continues to speak directly to us.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: This may be the best transfer to DVD of a Japanese film of this period that I have yet seen—certainly it compares favorably to any of the Kurosawa or Ozu releases, with a carefully modulated gray scale and fantastically deep blacks. Only occasional jumpy frames mar the video presentation, though this seems like problems with the source material, not the transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Mizoguchi uses only a small amount of soundtrack music, so the frequent silences can become almost deafening—there's some hiss on this track, but overall it's a strong presentation.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Jeffrey Angles
Packaging: custom cardboard cover with sl
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsA great film, with astounding emotional resonance and astonishingly assured technique, on a DVD that looks exquisite. Mizoguchi fans will be delirious; and those less familiar with the director have the opportunity to make an extraordinary discovery. Most highly recommended.
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