Saturday, January 06, 2007

Sansho the Bailiff

1954, Japan, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

Like most of Mizoguchi's films, Sansho the Bailiff is concerned with questions of social justice, with a particular focus, here, on the realities of life for the lower classes during the feudal period. Mizoguchi is blunt about the working and living conditions on a powerful man's manor (the set design and the crane shots effectively convey the cramped, muddy living quarters, while there are moments of distressing brutality); there's none of the elision or even romanticisation characteristic of some films that deal with the same period.

Beyond the broader social depiction, though, is a profound story of familial loss - of honour and status, certainly, but also the loss of humanity in terrible ways, when a nobleman's children are captured and enslaved, and separated from their mother who is, in turn, sold into prostitution. The children's father was a just man, exiled for the progressive views he has imprinted on his family, and the moment when his son realises how profoundly he has been diverted from his father's principles is deeply moving - the more so because he's aware that what he's done can never be undone. The son's subsequent behaviour is a shade too didactically obvious for my taste, while the resolution is a little slow, but Mizoguchi's exquisite eye for visual compositions is always diverting (several of the shots have the perfection of the finest printwork, and some of the same motifs), while the acting is uniformly strong.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States