274) Sansho the Bailiff (1954) Dir: Kenji Mizoguchi Date Released: XX 1955 Date Seen: August 30, 2009 Rating: 4/5
It's remarkable to see how debased any visible or even tangible signs of authority are in Sansho the Bailiff, Kenji Mizoguchi's evocative epic. Tokens of power in the film are required at every turn, even at the film's wrenching climax, which hinges on a small statuette of Kwannon. Only the flesh-scorching brand of the titular slave-driver/land-owner is universally acknowledged, showing how, as with the Bible's Job, corporeal affliction rules in a world on the brink of self-destruction.
Sansho's daunting pessimism is not unusual, considering that the film is set in the Heian period, an era whose decadence is similarly bemoaned in Kurosawa's Rashomon, where rain threatens to wash humanity away while a beggar and a priest debate whether people are even worth a damn. This is the period shortly before the samurai overthrew the nobility and instituted a kind of martial law so if anything, the film's elegiac tone, where the son of an ex-communicated official endures years of hardship but is ultimately unable to quell the evils of feudal slavery, is rather lenient.
Mizoguchi's characteristic attention to foregrounding nature in his outdoor photography is all the more wistful considering how Zushio, the film's protagonist, eventually learns to lament the emptiness of the artificial powers that be. Rarely are people as majestically filmed in Sansho as the trees and natural landscape they pepper. Directors like Hiroshi Inagaki and Nagisa Oshima both display a similar awe for the great outdoors* but neither is capable of achieving the same overpowering effect Mizoguchi does here. Here, he provides the viewer with an elemental anchor, assuring us that while people may not be able to affect sensible change in their environment, they should not take their achingly beautiful surroundings for granted.
*In Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto and Empire of Passion, respectively