The monumentally powerful Japanese ‘jidai-geki’ classic which explores passionately the lifelong journey of a son and daughter of an exiled feudal governer from a life of privalege to slavery and finally salvation is realized by Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi with immense emotional power and mythological thematic resonance.
Sansho the Baliff (2954) dir Kenji Mizoguchi
Starring: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyōko Kagawa, Eitarō Shindō
We hardly even get to meet the patriarch of the family, the righteous governor who in the opening is exiled by the manicial landowner of the region. His departure is honorable; an exodus looked upon with despair his governor’s devoted peasants. But in this feudal land human labour is a commodity and respected no more than cattle. The governor’s wife Tamaki and two children, Zushio and Anju, go off on their own to live with their brother. But on their first boat ride the children are captured by slave traders and Tamaki taken separately to be sold into prostitution.
What a harrowing predicament.
Through the eyes of the young Zushio and Anju we see the horrors of humanity at its worst, innocent children separated from their parents and subjected to torture, humiliation and lifelong imprisonment. Working from an ancient Japanese legend Mizoguchi doesn’t muddy the waters in his depiction of good and evil – good, being the moral but unpopular values of the children’s father, and evil, the despotic feudal leaders applicable to any despotic rule through history, including Japan’s then-recent atrocities in WWII.
After jumping the timeline 10 years later Mizoguchi complicates these base characterizations by showing the divergance of the children’s outlooks on life. We suddenly see Zushio aligning with his captors and becoming an agent of evil and engaging in the brutal torturing of his slaves and female Anju holding firm to her father’s righteous value system.
The latter half of the picture amplifies the intensity of the journey when Zushio decides to escape, dramtically leaving Anju at home, to find their mother and father somewhere on the outside.
We can’t but see the influence of Anju and Zushio’s journey on George Lucas’ Star Wars philosophies. While Kurosawa might have influenced the first trilogy, Mizuguchi features prominently in the second, through the diametric characterization of good and evil and powerful transition of one to the other by the temptation to assimilate to power. Zushio as Annakin Skywalker perhaps, escaping from slavery, and returning to save his mother from her inprisonment? Ok, that’s where the comparison ends.
Mizoguchi’s dramatic beats are made memorable through astonishingly emotional cinematic moments: the image of a pristine lake interupted by the gentle ripples of water signifying the honourable suicide of Anju; and the finale, the reunification of Zushio with his mother, now blind, who cannot believe her son has actually returned – a parental moment of immense catharsis it had me grabbing my children for a hug and cry.
Sansho the Baliff is available Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection