(Sansho the Bailiff)
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Production: Daiei (Kyoto); black and white, 35mm; running time: 119 minutes, some sources list 123 minutes; length: 11,070 feet. Released 1954.
Producer: Masaichi Nakata; screenplay: Yahiro Fuji and Yoshikata Yoda, from the novel by Ogai Mori; photography: Kazuo Miyagawa; editor: Mitsuji Miyata; sound engineer: Iwao Otani; production designers: Kisaku Ito with Uichiro Yamanoto and Nakajima Kozaburo; music: Tamekichi Mochizuki, Fumio Hayasaka, and Kanahichi Odera; traditional music: Shinichi; costume designer: Yoshio Ueno; consultant on ancient architecture: Giichi Fujiwara.
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka (Tamaki/Nakagimi); Yoshiaki Hanayagi (Zushio, his son); Kyoko Kagawa (Anju, his daughter); Eitaro Shindo (Sansho); Ichiro Sugai (Nio, Minister of Justice); Bontaro Miyake (Kichiji); Yoko Kosono (Kohagi); Chieko Naniwa (Ubatake); Kikue Mori (Miko); Ken Mitsuda (Morosane Fujiwara); Masao Shimizu (Masaji Taira, the father); Ryosuke Kagawa (Ritsushi Ummo); Akitake Kono (Tara, Sansho's son); Kanji Koshiba (Kudo); Shinobu Araki (Sadayu); Masahiko Kato (Zushio, a boy); Keiko Enami (Anju, young girl); Naoki Fujima (Zushio, as small boy); Teruko Taigi (The other Nakagimi); Reiko Kongo (Shiono).
Awards: Venice Film Festival, Silver Prize, 1954.
Yoda, Yoshikata, and Yahiro Fuji, L'Intendant Sansho, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 May 1979.
Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art andIndustry, Rutland, Vermont, 1960; revised edition, Princeton, 1982.
Ve-Ho, Kenji Mizoguchi, Paris, 1963.
Mesnil, Michel, Kenji Mizoguchi, Paris, 1965.
Yoda, Yoshikata, Mizoguchi Kenji no hito to geijutsu (Kenji Mizoguchi: The Man and His Art), Tokyo, 1970.
Tessier, Max, Kenji Mizoguchi, Paris, 1971.
Mellen, Joan, Voices from the Japanese Cinema, New York, 1975.
Mellen, Joan, The Waves at Kenji's Door: Japan Through Its Cinema, New York, 1976.
Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors, New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.
Garbicz, Adam, and Jacek Klinowski, editors, Cinema, The MagicVehicle: A Guide to Its Achievement: Journey Two, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1979.
Freiberg, Freda, Women in Mizoguchi Films, Melbourne, 1981.
Sato, Tadao, Currents in Japanese Cinema, Tokyo, 1982.
Serceau, Daniel, Mizoguchi: De la revolte aux songes, Paris, 1983.
Andrew, Dudley, Film in the Aura of Art, Princeton, 1984.
McDonald, Keiko, Mizoguchi, Boston, 1984.
O'Grady, Gerald, editor, Mizoguchi the Master, Ontario, 1996.
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Yoda, Yoshikata, "Souvenirs sur Mizoguchi," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1967.
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Wood, Robin, "The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer," in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1973.
Coleman, John, in New Statesman (London), 20 February 1976.
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Macnab, Geoffrey, in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 8, no. 12, December 1998.
* * *
Sansho dayu can be taken as representing the ultimate extension and one of the supreme achievements of a certain tendency in the world cinema, the tendency celebrated in the critical writings of André Bazin and associated with the term "realism." The only way in which the term is useful, and not actively misleading, is if it is applied to specific stylistic options. (Clearly, Mizoguchi's late films are not "realistic" in the sense in which a newsreel is "realistic.") The following features are relevant.
1. The Long Take, tending to the sequence-shot. Mizoguchi developed a long-take technique quite early in his career; in Japan, he was frequently criticized as old-fashioned for not adopting the editing techniques of Western cinema. One must distinguish, however, between the sequence-shots of Sisters of Gion (1936), for example, and those of Sansho dayu. As Nöel Burch has convincingly argued in To the Distant Observer, the earlier type of long take, where the camera is held at a great distance from the characters, remaining static for long stretches of the action, with its occasional movements maintaining emotional and physical distance, is peculiarly Japanese, rooted in elements of a national aesthetic tradition. The sequenceshots of late Mizoguchi, on the contrary, are compatible with certain practices of Western cinema, for example, the works of Wyler, Welles and Ophüls. Whether one is content to say, with Burch, that Mizoguchi succumbed to the Western codes of illusionism, or whether one places the stress on his plastic realization of their full aesthetic and expressive potential, doubtless depends on one's attitude to the codes themselves.
2. Camera Movement. The clinical detachment with which the camera views the characters of Sisters of Gion is replaced in the late films by an extremely complex tension between contemplation and involvement. The camera moves in the great majority of shots in Sansho dayu, sometimes identifying us with the movements of the characters, sometimes (perhaps within a single shot) withdrawing us from them to a contemplative distance. The film's famous closing scene contains particularly beautiful examples in the two shots that frame it: in the first, the camera begins to move with Zushio at the moment he hears his mother's voice and is drawn towards it, then cranes up to watch the movements towards reunion, until the mother is also visible within the frame; in the last shot of film, the camera moves upward away from the reunited couple, to reveal the vast seascape and the solitary figure of the old seaweed-gatherer, his task now completed.
3. Depth of field. Again and again Mizoguchi makes marvellously expressive use of simultaneous foreground and background action. That something is amiss with the priestess's plan for the family travel by sea is subtly hinted by the presence, in distant long-shots, of a small hunched figure sinisterly scuttling away as the family walks to the water. The impact of the following sequence of the kidnapping and separation of mother and children is largely created by their being kept consistently within the frame as Mizoguchi cuts back and forth between the mother's struggles and the children's struggles, so that we are continuously aware of the widening distance between them.
It is true that this bringing to perfection of a certain kind of cinematic art in Mizoguchi's last period coincides with a shift to a more conservative ideological position. The rage against oppression and cruelty is still there, but it is now heavily qualified by resignation, by a commitment to notions of spiritual transcendence. However, the tradition that feeds the film is rich and complex, and one must honor—whatever one's own political position—an art that brings such a tradition to its fullest realization.