Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films that's beyond criticism, really. It's flawless, with the possible minor exception of the decision to put whistling music at the end. Whether or not you actually like it as a movie, there's not much one can do except discuss its artistic achievements.
Kenji Mizoguchi was huge fifty years ago, especially among the French. This was the third year in a row that he won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, after The Life of Oharu (1952) and Ugetsu Monogatari (1953). As usual for him it's slow, beautifully shot and a little distant. It's not so much the pace which puts a barrier between it and the modern viewer, but the cinematography. He's not a big fan of close-ups. Instead he'll do long, elaborately constructed takes in which the characters are merely an element in their environment. The world is as much a part of the story as the people in it, whether we're talking about fields of waving reeds or his eerie, alien waterscapes. Even when his characters are going through hell, Mizoguchi will quite often pull back to a long shot and force us to guess what they're feeling, or else read it from their body language rather than their faces.
Perhaps as a result of this, what's most impressive about the actors here is their physicality. I'm starting to suspect that that was something of a speciality of Japanese actors in this era. You'll see it in Kurosawa films too. Here there are three performances that really caught my eye and all of them involved physical transformation. The most important is the lead character, played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi. Oddly enough, he only ever did five films. Maybe it's because he doesn't have the looks of a traditional leading man? I could imagine him being a rather good comedian, although this film couldn't in a million years be described as a comedy. He's got a face that can be brutal, passionately imploring or else gormless and gerbil-like. I rather liked him, actually.
The other two actors whose physicality caught my eye were Kinuyo Tanaka and Eitaro Shindo, both of whom have to portray their characters after the passing of a good few years and are doing so without noticeable assistance from the make-up department. Shindo is rather fascinating in the subtleties he's finding. Kinuyo Tanaka on the other hand though is playing it as broad and startling as a Boris Karloff or a Laurence Olivier, but without for a moment compromising the integrity of a heartbreaking final scene. You'll be convinced she's at death's door, yet her face still looks exactly the same as she did when she was merely a mother. She was a huge star in Japan, incidentally, with a career that lasted more than fifty years, had started in the silent era and saw her go on to be a director as well.
It would be unfair not to mention Kyoko Kagawa, though. She's playing the daughter and she's quite pretty, but more importantly she's a fine actress and I see she also did a lot of films for Akira Kurosawa. She's still alive and working today, incidentally.
The film's set during the Heian era, which lasted from the 8th to the 12th centuries. "Heian" in Japanese means "peace", but in English it clearly means "really goofy hats". Wow, the Heians committed some crimes against fashion. You've got aristocrats dressed as the Wizard of Oz, occasionally wearing hats that make them looks like Disney princesses. The imperial court in session looks like garden gnomes. If you're looking out for them, you'll even briefly spot those silly eyebrow blobs and the all-time most sinister fashion trend in the history of the world, ohaguro (black-painted teeth). My personal favourite though was the comedy Mexican moustache. Yes, I realise that Sansho the Bailiff is a deeply serious film and for me to be making frivolous comments like this about it is like drawing comedy moustaches on the Mona Lisa, but bloody hell.
Plotwise, it's like a rather philosophical revenge tragedy. The first half is basically "how much hell can we pile upon our heroes". Pretty much everything you can imagine is likely to happen to one or another of them, including prostitution and slavery. Mizoguchi and his screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda also put a twist on the short story they're adapting by having the Hanayagi character fall morally to become as bad as his jailers before eventually finding himself again in the second half of the film. I called this a revenge tragedy and it's true that events come full circle in a rather Buddhist kind of way, but I don't think anyone's ever acting out of revenge even though they definitely would be in a Western remake.
What you'll remember is the tragedy. There are three particular scenes that stand out from the rest of the film and grab you hard. As is right and proper, one of them's the ending.
Mizoguchi is famous for his feminism (although it differs from the modern definition), specifically examining freedom, poverty and women's place in society. His mother died when he was seventeen and his sister was sold as a geisha. Technically you'd have to say that this film has a male protagonist, but it feels closer in spirit to its women. More debatable is a possible comparison of the brutality of Sansho's regime with Japan's behaviour during World War Two, specifically with reference to how the characters move on from it in the second half of the film and are forced to face up to the consequences of what happened. Was that intentional from Mizoguchi? I don't know and I can't ask him. I'm always reluctant to impose such specific readings like that on a film, but it fits thematically with the moral fall of the Hanayagi character. It's an interesting interpretation, anyway.
This is a film you've got to meet halfway. It's elegaic and distant, with music so delicate that it jarred for me when it came up enough for me to notice it at the end. I should think some people might be bored by it, but others will be shaken by its tragedy. Me, I had a little from both categories. However I admire it as a work of art and I think it has a lot of power if you're prepared to wait for it.