Wednesday, July 13, 2011

film review:Sansho the Balif, by Kenji Mizoguchi



Kenji Mizoguchi

Mizoguchi (May 16, 1898 – August 24, 1956) is perhaps the most Japanese of Japan's great directors. Kurosawa was known for being influenced by the West, and Ozu known for being a Japanese purist mizoguchi was even more so."His films have an extraordinary force and purity. They shake and move the viewer by the power, refinement and compassion with which they confront human suffering."(Mark Le Fanu Mizoguchi and Japan, London: BFI Publishing, 2005, p.1) The story is written by Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda.


Cast overview, first billed only:
Kinuyo Tanaka Kinuyo Tanaka ...
Yoshiaki Hanayagi Yoshiaki Hanayagi ...
Kyôko Kagawa Kyôko Kagawa ...
Eitarô Shindô Eitarô Shindô ...
Sanshô dayû
Akitake Kôno Akitake Kôno ...
Masao Shimizu Masao Shimizu ...
Masauji Taira
Ken Mitsuda Ken Mitsuda ...
Prime Minister Fujiwara
Kazukimi Okuni Kazukimi Okuni ...
Yôko Kosono Yôko Kosono ...
Noriko Tachibana Noriko Tachibana ...
Ichirô Sugai Ichirô Sugai ...
Minister of Justice
Teruko Omi Teruko Omi ...
Masahiko Kato Masahiko Kato ...
Young Zushio
Keiko Enami Keiko Enami ...
Young Anju
Bontarô Akemi Bontarô Akemi ...

This is an extremely sad story, set in the Haien period of Japan.(794-1192) Oddly enough the Haien period is said to have been:

one of those amazing periods in Japanese history, equaled only by the later Tokugawa period in pre-modern Japan, in which an unprecedented peace and security passed over the land under the powerful rule of the Heian dynasty. Japanese culture during the Heian flourished as it never had before; such a cultural efflorescence would only occur again during the long Tokugawa peace. For this reason, Heian Japan along with Nara Japan (710-794) is called "Classical" Japan.
In the film, however, it says people weren't really human yet, they had not yet awakened to their humanity. The period is portrayed as brutal, with an economy based upon slavery. Apparently for some reason the Japanese see their own history that way. The story centers around a family whose father is appointed governor by the imperial court. He is eventually deposed and his wife and children must travel alone to join him. The father gave the son an idol of the goddess Guanyin. He tells the son that a human is not really without compassion and urges him to always show mercy. Of course the son is convinced of his father's greatness. He is eager to keep his teachings. The offer counters the abuse of military men who wish to go to war and is deposed form his office.

They journey through an area which is dangerously overrun by slavers. The mother, son (Zushiô ), daughter (Anju), and old female servant, try camping out because they can't find a place to stay. An old woman finds them and takes them in. He is only pretending to help them. She claims to have arranged their passage on a boat but when the mother gets on the boat first it leaves without the children. The children are sold into slavery on the main land and the mother on a small island off the coast.

From that point on ten years pass. The boy is now 23 and he's forgotten his father's teaching. The compound in which the brother and sister is a hell hole, it's a sweat shop ran by this old man called Sansho the Bailiff. The slaves are beaten, they work round the clock with little rest and penalty for escape is branding on the face. Zushio, now called Waka, has gained the trust fo the slavers by being willing to brand run away slaves who have been captured. Anju is appauled at her brother's attitude, she takes charge of the small goddess figure, the only keep sake of their former lives they still have. A new gril is brought to the compound and Anju is instructed to help learn her job. She finds the girl sining a song with their names in it, it talks about how life is torture and the persecution of th persona in the son is that of one betrayed an sold into slavery and separated from Zushio and Anju. Anju tries to find out who wrote the song, but the girl thinks it was a courtesan named "Nakagimi."

We are allowed to see the mother's life. She is a courtesan, who is constantly trying to run away. They cut her tendon so she can't run. Other courtesan's take her to the edge of a cliff everyday where she can hobble to the edge of the water and see the mainland, where her children are. She shouts to them across the water. She has no idea if they can hear or if they are even alive but she continues to do this just in case they get a small sound of her voice they might somehow come to her some day.

One day a woman at Sansho's compound is sick and dying. Because they trust Waka they send him to take the old woman out and dump her in the woods to die (the place is ran by Republicans). He brings his sister with him to help prepare the body for death. Another old woman is back at the fense not allowed to go with her but she shouts to the dying woman "be reincarnated in a good family! Be born to rich people in the next life." Waka has become hard and bitter. He preaches that only through serving the Bailiff and getting on his good side can one avoid being beaten and maybe gain a moment's rest. Once he's outside the compound they hear very faint voice in the distance carried across the waves, their mother's voice calling their names. The boy decides to run away. The sister gives him the idol and she stays to through them off track. They reason that two together would be caught but one by himself might make it. The plan is for him to go to the imperial temple near by and get help and find someway, perhaps through contacting the father, to come and get the daughter out and then find the mother.

Once the boy runs off and the other realize he's escaped, they say they are going to torture the sister to make her tell where she's gone. They are all running off into search parties and they leave an old woman to watch the girl. The old woman tells the girl to tie her up so she can flea and the woman wont be in trouble. The sister does this but he goes immediately to the water and drowns herself so that she can't be made to betray the brother. The search party winds up at the temple anyway, her sacrifice need not have been made. Nevertheless they don't find Zushio because the Abbot turns them away saying "this is an imperial temple and it's under the protection of the emperor and you have to right to be here, get lost," and so on. The son's plan is to go to the imperial adviser and try to illicit help. The priest is a friend of the adviser and so writes a letter beseeching the man for help for the young man.

At first Zushio is arrested and put in a sort of prison cell in a hut. He is treated harshly and they take the little idol figure. The next day, however, he's brought before the adviser who tells him that he is the one who gave the idol to the father in the first place. He knew the guy's father and admired him. His stand against the military was admirable. Even the father is not dead, the advised is determined to help. He appoints the son to his father's old post as adviser. He goes back and outlaws slavery in his Provence. He lacks the authority to confiscate slaves on private property but when Sansho's men, acting under his orders, tear down the posters proclaiming the outlawing of traffic in humans, he has a pretext and leads an army into the compound and arrests Sansho and exiles him. He is deeply saddened to learn that his sister is dead. He can't understand why she didn't have faith to wait for him. He realizes her sacrifice.

He then resigns his post because he's pursued a policy the adviser warned him against. The slave lobby was too powerful to mess with. Sansho has friends and will be back in power. At least he offers freedom to his slaves. They have a wild party in Sansho's great hall, tear the place apart and burn it down. It's hilarious to see them all getting drunk and tearing up all of the possessions of their former tormentor. Zushio offers them an opportunity to go home or stay there and work for pay. He himself leaves. He goes to find his mother on the island. He finds her sitting alone on a beach, blind, muttering to herself, singing her song about her children and how life is torture. At first she doesn't' believe it's him, she thinks it's a tormentor come to mock her. She realizes it's him when she feels the little idol of The goddess of mercy. The two of them are left there, they embrace and the son will care for the mother. The mother says he prevailed because he remembered his father's teachings.

This film is a cray against the prevailing spirit of our own age. It argues against the "look out for number one" mentality. It's not preaching, but the glimpse one get's a world totally dedicated to the worship of power and selfishness is sermon enough.

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