Kenji Mizoguchi is, along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, the most celebrated of Japanese directors of the 20th century. Yet, today he is less well known and far less revived than Kurosawa, whose rich samurai adventures and vivid historical dramas have kept his name on the top of favorite director lists for decades, or Ozu, whose quiet tales of families facing the trials of everyday life offer some of the most sublime portraits of contemporary living in the world. Mizoguchi falls between the two poles of the triumvirate of Japanese masters of cinema. He’s the poet laureate of Japanese cinema, gracefully exploring the battered but resilient souls in the cruel worlds of Japan’s feudal past and present. And in the 1950s, at the peak of his powers and his international success, he was Japan’s standard-bearer on the world stage. For three years in a row, Mizoguchi won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the top prize at one of the most prestigious film festivals in world. Sansho the Bailiff (1954) was the third of these (following The Life of Oharu (1952) and Ugetsu, 1953). It was the master filmmaker’s 81st feature.
Based on a story by 20th century author Ogai Mori, Sansho the Bailiff follows the trials of the wife and children of a provincial governor, enslaved by a feudal lord after the principled ruler sides with the oppressed farmers against the lord’s demands for soldiers and rice. The mother, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), is sold into prostitution, while son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and his younger sister Anju (Kyko Kagawa) are handed over to Sansho (Eitaro Shindo), a pitiless slave owner who metes out swift, unequivocal punishment to all slaves captured in escape attempts. Mizoguchi and his writers, longtime collaborator Yoshikata Yoda and veteran freelance screenwriter Fuji Yahiro, both expanded the original short story and made small but crucial alterations. In particular, they make Zushio, who is the younger brother in the original story, into an older brother to his innocent, idealistic sister, who remains devoted to him as he becomes corrupted by his hostile, brutal environment. The story becomes one of sacrifice and redemption, themes that run through Mizoguchi’s work.
Sansho the Bailiff plays on TCM on Sunday, November 13.