Sansho dayu (Sansho the Bailiff) is Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1954 film about a family torn brutally asunder by politics in medieval Japan. Not having seen very much classic Japanese cinema at all before, I’m unequipped to say anything very informed about it. The movie is about a strange and distant past; it was made in an era that’s obviously less distant but, in terms of film history at least, something of a middle age. Furthermore, it takes place in what is for me a faraway, unknown country. So my sense of distance from what I was seeing was doubled or tripled, and it was sometimes hard to sort through the several varieties of foreignness at work. Like reading one of Walter Scott’s historical novels, watching the movie sometimes felt like looking through two pairs of glasses. Aesthetically speaking, this amounted to something of a gift: watching most historical films, I find it hard to let go of my awareness of the filmmakers’ efforts at verisimilitude, but with Sansho the Bailiff I had to remind myself periodically that what I was seeing was not recorded six hundred years ago.
The family in the story is doomed by the egalitarian ideas of the husband and father, a provincial governor sent into exile in the film’s opening scenes. Without knowing something about Japanese history (i.e., more than I know), it’s hard to say whether the enlightened views on human rights and human dignity the main character inherits from his exiled father are historically plausible, or are more likely Mizoguchi’s own twentieth-century values projected on his characters. But although these historical questions remained alive for me throughout, the real heart of the film is the smaller-scale family drama–which, perhaps paradoxically, is animated by values that look far more ancient from our perspective–and the serenely beautiful photography. According to David Thomson, the director’s trademark and major contribution to the art is his way of telling intimate stories through visual means:
The use of the camera to convey emotional ideas or intelligent feelings is the definition of cinema derived from Mizoguchi’s films. He is supreme in the realization of internal states in external views.
Thomson goes on to quote Jacques Rivette, director of perhaps the film with the most vise-like grip on my imagination, on Mizoguchi’s supremacy over other Japanese masters:
You can compare only what is comparable and that which aims high enough. Mizoguchi, alone, imposes a feeling of a unique world and language, is answerable only to himself. If Mizoguchi captivates us, it is because he never sets out deliberately to do so and never takes sides with the spectator.
Thomson also uses a particularly nice metaphor to explain why one should jump at any chance to see Mizoguchi’s work on the big screen, as I was fortunate enough to see Sansho:
Despite all its advantages for research and preservation, video is unkind to any movie and cruel to any great movie. Mizoguchi worked with scale, space, and movement, and movement on a TV set is like a fish moving across a tank, whereas movement on a real screen is that of a great fish passing us in the water.
Wait, did I say that was a “nice” metaphor? It’s fabulous.
Eager to soak up informed perspectives on Mizoguchi after seeing Sansho, I also looked at an essay by Donald Richie, who offered excellent biographical information and quotations from the director himself. Two of these strike me as especially noteworthy. The first will sound familiar to U.S. filmgoers, and collapses some of the distance between movie-making in Japan in the 1950s and in Hollywood today:
I made my first film in 1921 [sic; actually 1922] and have been working at my craft for thirty years now. If I reflect on what I’ve done I see a long series of arguments and compromises with capitalists (they are called producers today) in an effort to make films which I myself might like. I’ve often been forced to accept work that I knew I wouldn’t be successful with…This has happened over and over again. I’m not telling you all this to excuse myself–the same thing happens to filmmakers all over the world.
You want me to speak about my art? That’s impossible. A filmmaker has nothing to say which is worth saying.
I don’t think that’s false modesty. I think that’s a nice way of saying “Just watch my damn films.” And we all should watch his, whenever possible.