Foreign Language Thursday: Sansho the Baliff (1954)

19 05 2011

Was supposed to do the Apu trilogy today but that will have to wait once again, so for now it is Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Baliff”.

This beautifully shot movie is about a governor’s family and what becomes of it when he is forced into exile.  His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their two children travel follow him years later after temporarily staying with her brother. They get tricked along the way and then separately sold into slavery . Their children, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), get sent to a private manor under the care of the strict and malicious Sansho. Mizoguchi’s tale touches on themes of human rights, politics and bureaucracy, and morality.

“What a horrible world.”

Zushio and Anju are definitely transported to such a place once they are abducted except that Mizoguchi contrasts it wonderfully with great cinematography done by Kazuo Miyagawa. Japan is such a gorgeous country and many of the shots in “Sansho the Baliff” make full use of the landscapes; from the shores to mountainsides Japan is on full display. Inside Sansho’s manor it is dark and depressing, the life seemingly sucked out and the gloomy atmosphere stapled on screen by just the setting. Outside of the setting, many of the shots are complicated from either using a large amount of people in the frame or just very carefully constructed scenes which give many of the crucial scenes in the film the appropriate tension and emotion which in a film that relies on emotion so much is crucial.

“Without mercy, man is like a beast.”

One of the biggest themes of “Sansho the Baliff” is morality. We are early on exposed to two extremes of views on human decency: the children’s father who actually gets exiled for standing up for his people and whom the above quote it from, and Sansho who uses inhumane techniques and has absolutely no regard for the well-being of his slaves. Throughout the movie we are shown many characters who struggle with his issue including Sansho’s son, many government officials, and even Zushio himself. Zushio, although good and honorable in nature, struggles with his new home and what happens there. He is torn, like everyone else, between doing what is morally right and what is the logical thing to do in a socio-economic sense. The film tells a message that many have told, the choosing what is right over what is profitable, but it I don’t know if it has ever been done so emotionally and effectively.

“Sansho the Baliff” is definitely a classic. Kenji Mizoguchi is an often overlooked classical Japanese director since he unfortunately made movies in the same period as Kurosawa and Ozu, nevertheless movies like Sansho and a couple of his other acclaimed works prove that he was just as talented as his contemporaries.

Score 95/100

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