Archived Events, Film



A wrenching tale of a family torn apart by dirty politics in feudal Japan, SANSHO THE BAILIFF lives right in the tender heart of Harvard Film Archive’s ongoing, consistently thrilling Kenji Mizoguchi retrospective. Mizoguchi’s most famous film — or else his second, after 1953’s UGETSU (the extensive guesswork I’ve given the matter remains inconclusive) — SANSHO may haunt less literally than UGETSU, but its phantoms are no less palpable for that, and its pathos is no less powerful.

An upstanding regional governor outside of Kyoto is sent into exile as punishment for prioritizing the rights of peasants over landowners, leaving his wife and young children bereft and abandoned. When they set out, despite the journey’s perils, to find and rejoin him, they are set upon by bandits who impose another separation: Tamaki is carted off to a brothel, while her children, Zushio and Anju, are sold to Sansho the Bailiff, the manager of a privately held estate fêted for his impressively high yields — and, not coincidentally, a brutal master of slaves.

Why is the film named after Sansho, a character we spend relatively little time with and get to know hardly at all? Perhaps because he epitomizes, in his person, the forces against which every decent person in the film — including his son, Taro, who seeks to help the children escape — has to contend lest he give way to cynicism and despair. Just as he did in Mori Ogai’s Sansho Dayu, the short story on which the film is based, Sansho embodies self-serving rapacity, stripped of loyalty and fellow-feeling, cravenly hypocritical and devoid of integrity. Mizoguchi (something of a socialist, shhh) saw a similar sort of selfishness, cloaked in a new ideology of rational modernity, as the chief threat to Japan after its equally ruinous militarism guttered out in defeat.

Legendary for the the exquisite spareness of his visual compositions — which share a quality of limpid melancholy with the works of Edo-period painter Utagawa Hiroshige — Mizoguchi produced for SANSHO a series of tableaux in which he contrasted the apparent serenity of the natural world with the filigreed pomp of aristocratic court life, and also with the anxieties and depredations of Japanese society during the Heian period, when Buddhism offered a kind of stoical salve to those caught between inaccessible government and unaccountable business concerns. Toru Takemitsu’s score — a glittering skein of delicacy, menace, and sorrow — leaves plenty of room for the gathering silences, from which the plaintive song of a mother longing for her children swells and subsides like an echo of a dream, or like a shadow cast by some other, truer, fallen sun.

5/23 – 7pm
5/25 – 4pm
124 Minutes

Harvard Film Archive
Carpenter Center
24 Quincy St.
Cambridge, MA

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