Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On Hiatus

Daffy Duck struggles with a rewrite
in The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950).

(Cross-posted in Tour America’s Treasures…)

With apologies for the unexplained radio silence, I’ve been enjoying a temporary hiatus from both my blogs, Tour America’s Treasures and 21 Essays.

During this dormant period, I’ve been devoting much of my free time to one more rewrite on The Poem Beasts, the young adult fantasy novel that my son and I wrote several years ago.  A year ago, I published several poems from the novel on 21 Essays where they’ve received a fair amount of attention and praise.  My goal is to have the next draft of The Poem Beasts completed by the end of January 2014.

I hope to return to regular posting of a restructured Tour America’s Treasures in February.  At that time, I anticipate making some significant changes to the blog in order to accomplish the original goal:  to cover more than 1,300 sites in six years.  At the current rate of publication, it would be more like sixty years…

After Tour America’s Treasures returns to steady production, I’ll turn my attention to reviving 21 Essays.

© 2013 Lee Price

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Maurice Sendak's Gracious Farewell

Max prepares to depart.
Maurice Sendak designed this opera production of
Where the Wild Things Are for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Several weeks ago, I added a Maurice Sendak quote to the right column of this blog: 

“There’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging—that I am in love with the world.”

I hope I can say something similar when I’m 83.  More than anything, I want to continue falling ever more deeply in love with the world.

The quote comes from an interview that Terry Gross conducted with the beloved children’s author and illustrator on Fresh Air, a popular National Public Radio program.  Almost more an intimate talk with a friend than a standard interview, Sendak openly acknowledged his failing health and advancing age, taking the opportunity to say goodbye to his host with an eloquence that is deeply moving.

Unable to come to the studio, Sendak spoke from his home, mentioning in passing that even walking has become difficult.  He’s confined in space, looking out the window at the trees—but he even finds joy in this.

“And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old.  They're beautiful.  And you see I can see how beautiful they are.  I can take time to see how beautiful they are.

“It is a blessing to get old.”

But side-by-side with the blessing is the overwhelming melancholy of loss.  It’s his King Lear interview, as he strives to express the fragility, irrationality, and comedy of life.  The knowledge of death informs the interview.  He wears his vulnerability bravely.

While I respect Sendak’s atheism, his last words of the interview sound like a blessing—a benediction from the heart:

“I wish you all good things.  Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

This is my 200th entry on 21 Essays.  I hope to keep it going for at least thirty more years, until I’m turning 83 and considering a series on the beautiful maples outside my window.

If you haven’t heard it, enjoy the interview!  And have tissues handy.  Here’s a link to the full 18-minute interview at the NPR site (click on “Listen to the story.”).

And here’s a sweet tribute to the interview by Christoph Niemann, creatively illustrating the last five minutes of the interview:

© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Supreme Duck Artistry of Carl Barks

Guest contributor:  Waldemar Hepstein is an artist for No Comprendo Press, a publisher of alternative comics.  Hepstein’s work has appeared in the magazine Fidus and is collected in albums such as 'Snork.’

Carl Barks: Tortured Artist, Master Comedian

Carl Barks at the 1982
San Diego Comic Con.
Photo by Alan Light.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
For golden age comic book buffs, Carl Barks (1901-2000) is the legendary “Good Duck Artist,” a moniker that took hold long before his name became publicly known.  In 1950, when the publishers briefly took him off his regular spot at Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories because they wanted him to concentrate on the longer stories, readers complained and demanded that the anonymous “good artist” be re-installed to do his monthly 10-page Donald Duck lead-in story.

Barks, who wrote and illustrated comic book stories about the Disney ducks from 1942 to 1966, agreed with critics that his most creative period was around 1950.  As is sometimes the case with artists, inspiration seemed to be especially strong in a period of great personal stress and turmoil.  This was the time when Barks was struggling in a rapidly deteriorating relationship with an alcoholic wife.  He once stated that he could feel his creative juices flowing as the whiskey bottles hurled at him by his wife flew by his head.

From Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, November 1951:
The Terror of the Beagle Boys by Carl Barks.

It was during the period of their divorce that Barks created some of his most beloved stories and famous characters:  Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, and Gyro Gearloose.  The circulation of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories also peaked at this time, exceeding three million, making it the all-time best-selling comic book title in the United States.  Let’s take a closer look at one of Barks’ classic short stories, The Terror of the Beagle Boys, from the November 1951 issue (#134) which introduced the Beagle Boys.

It’s an atypical story in some ways, being much slighter on plot than Barks’ other stories from the period and unexpectedly veering into sheer surrealism.  Almost entirely a two-duck act, it brings to the fore Barks’ mastery in “directing” his character comedians:  Both Donald and Uncle Scrooge turn in Oscar-worthy performances in this one.

The story opens in Scrooge’s main office in his famed money bin (incidentally, making its premiere appearance in this story).  Donald is employed by Scrooge as a professional worrier, required to walk around the office moaning and wailing and tearing his hair.  However, neither of them can recall what they were supposed to worry about until an ancient messenger boy (addressed by old Scrooge as “Sonny”) delivers a message from the police that the fearsome Beagle gang are on the loose.

A hilarious sequence follows in which the two ducks—over several pages—struggle to keep awake as they guard the money bin with an old cannon and try to think up ways to foil the crooks.  Barks must have enjoyed drawing scenes like these;  several other stories also center on drowsy ducks required to stay awake for prolonged periods.  Finally Donald hits upon the idea of rigging a Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption to the cannon so it will set itself off when the door is opened.

The audacious finale has Scrooge accidentally setting off the mechanism, whereupon the cannon ball flies through several buildings before hitting a mattress factory, where it bounces off the mattresses, now taking the exact same course in reverse.  Finally it cracks open the walls of Scrooge’s money bin, unleashing an avalanche of cash into the street where the Beagle Boys happily scoop it up.

None of the other Disney comic book artists ever rivaled Barks’ remarkable ability to make his characters live and breathe, or matched the elegant timing he exhibited in telling his stories.  Part of the reason may be Barks’ previous experience in the Disney animation department.  As part of the original Duck team in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he had worked not only as gag writer and co-scenarist, but for all intents and purposes he served as co-director of some of the very best Donald Duck cartoons, including such titles as Good Scouts, Donald’s Snow Fight and Timber.

In addition, Barks received a very rare measure of respect from his publisher. Respectful of his special talent, they largely trusted him to script and draw his stories with a minimum of editorial interference—a set-up that would be almost unthinkable today, especially with Disney.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: "Only a
Poor Old Man"
 by Carl Barks,
Vol. 12 in the Fantagraphics series.
Along with his fanciful adventures set in faraway places, Barks, who by many accounts could be quite caustic and cynical, took delight in smuggling in quite a bit of social satire.  It’s not as surprising as it may seem at first that Carl Barks and Robert Crumb, the most famous of the new wave of “underground” cartoonists, were in fact mutual admirers.

A new books series from Fantagraphics recaptures the world of Carl Barks, a fitting place to start for any of you lucky devils who are just discovering the supreme duck artistry of Carl Barks.

Waldemar Hepstein

Friday, August 2, 2013

On "Revenge" by Taha Muhammad Ali

Taha Muhammad Ali.
A couple of years ago, I introduced my son Terry to one of my favorite poems, “Revenge” by Taha Muhammad Ali (translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin).  This winter, Terry wrote an excellent essay on the poem for one of his college classes and I asked him if I could share it here:

Guest contributor:  Terry Price

Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) wrote the poem “Revenge” in an unrhymed form mostly consisting of short lines, punching hard with each word.  The tone and structure of the poem’s opening constitute a psychological trick, leading the reader to expect a very different outcome than the ultimate one.  There is an undercurrent of anger through much of the poem, certainly. However, the tricky pathway leads instead to a discussion on the nature of violence that is challenging and unexpectedly deep.

The poem begins by stating that sometimes the speaker wishes he could retaliate against the one who harmed his family by striking back in violence—by either killing his foe or being killed by him in the attempt.  He suggests that either result would bring some sort of peace, leading the reader to expect a poem about the need for catharsis through redemptive violence, a central myth of our time.  Yet even his opening line, though it contains only four words, opens the potential for a different approach through a deliberate mid-line pause.

But in the second stanza the poem takes an unexpected turn.  This subtle maneuver by Ali creates a new pathway to the end, where the full meaning and power of the power of the poem finally becomes clear.  Ali begins to dismantle the line of thought that the first stanza may have tricked us into accepting, an approach to life built around the angry depersonalization of others.  In the second stanza, Ali grants the possibility that maybe the one he hates is also loved.

This admission triggers a long list, beginning with the parents who would be harmed by the death of their son.  Then it widens out to include siblings, a spouse, children, and even friends.  The poem increasingly restricts our ability to dehumanize, as the speaker recognizes that his foe also possesses the ability to love and form meaningful relationships.

Ali’s final stanza offers a parting twist.  He breaks off from his contemplative widening of the net to describe what he would do under a very different circumstance—if his foe had no other meaningful connections.  He takes the opportunity to mirror previous parts of the poem, offering a short list that negates all the people previously imagined, stating them now as non-existences.

And he reaches a conclusion that is an unexpected subversion of how society usually views the nature of revenge.  The speaker decides that violence could not add any more suffering to the life of one so cut off from others.  As the act of killing would only ease the pain of loneliness, the speaker’s inaction is justified.  He declines to offer the escape of death to a man living without love.  While the desire for revenge still exists, his revenge is to let the man live.  This movement ingeniously reaffirms the validity of the passionate anger of the first verse while not forgetting the humanity that the poem’s speaker shares with his foe.

Enjoy “Revenge”…
Read “Revenge” at Common Ground News Service

© 2013 Lee Price

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Summer Vacation 2013

Visiting the Field Museum of
Natural History with a friend.

Of the ten essay series published here so far…

Six have been on favorite movies:
            Der Golem (1920)
            Blackmail (1929)
            King Kong (1933)
            Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (1953)
            Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
            Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Three have been on literature:
            O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
            The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
            “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Christina Rossetti

One has been on graphic art:

The essays have used these jumping-off places to explore religion, science, and history.  Even when they may not appear to be intensely personal, they are.

Visitation to 21 Essays is slow but steady.  Old posts on King Kong and Chuck Jones are more popular than new ones on Abraham Joshua Heschel and Kenji Mizoguchi, but that’s not a surprise.  Frankly, it would be a surprise to see Kenji Mizoguchi go viral.  I suspect that the series on The Sabbath and Sansho the Bailiff will continue to steadily attract readers, just like the old series on Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” continues to draw the occasional viewer (perhaps even getting a spike of attention come Christmas).

There’s a rumor that a new “For the Love of Film” blogathon may be looming.  If so, I hope to participate with an appropriate series.  If not, I probably won’t be doing a major series again until October.

In the meantime, I hope to post sporadically, while enjoying a little break.  Doing a series is the equivalent of taking a college course—and I’m trying hard to consistently publish “A” level work on the blog while maintaining a full-time regular job and a healthy family life.

Pleased as I am with the series themselves, I’m still looking for a better framework for them.  I switched to an emphasis on arbitrarily chosen years in January, but that approach has been too confining to make me happy.  I’ll continue to tinker.

Happy Summer!

© 2013 Lee Price

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: Compassion

essay 6 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Calligraphy: Kannon;
Always, Pray to the
Bodhisattva Kannon,
Hakuin Ekaku
(Japan, 1685-1768),
hanging scroll.
From the collection of the
Los Angeles County
Museum of Art.

Sansho the Bailiff:  Introduction to this Essay Series

A profound meditation on compassion and mercy, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff (1954) builds its power through the ethical wisdom of its narrative and the beauty and power of its visual expression.  The images embody the message.

Cruelty and mercy evenly divide this world.  Although the societal conventions of 1954 may have somewhat restrained the graphic illustration of torture and cruelty, several scenes painfully suggest the story’s horrific content—the brandings and mutilations.  For this series of six essays on Sansho the Bailiff, I’m opting to concentrate on the answering scenes of compassion.

For each entry, there will be a two-pronged focus, first on the ethics of Sansho the Bailiff and second on visual analysis of targeted scenes.

The Ethics of Sansho the Bailiff:  Compassion

Sansho the Bailiff tells the story of the children Zushiô and Anju.  Thanks to the sacrifice of his sister Anju, Zushiô escapes the slave compound of Sanshô the Bailiff and is reunited with his mother Tamaki.  The movie opens with Zushiô and closes with him.  Therefore the movie might be more reasonably, and informatively, called:

Zushiô and Anju or Anju and Zushiô or
Zushiô the Governor or Citizen Zushiô or even
Zushiô Unchained.

Revisiting the book Figures Traced in Light by acclaimed film theorist David Bordwell, I was delighted to see that he addresses one of the most puzzling mysteries of Sansho the Bailiff, namely:

“Why is it (the movie) named after him (Sanshô)? I always ask my classes.  Isn’t it a bit like changing the title of Othello to Iago?  My own view is that for Mizoguchi the world we live in, unhappily for us, belongs to its bailiffs.”

This is my view, too.  Sanshô is mean, vicious, and sycophantic, but he’s not a rare breed.  His kind still walks among us.  I read a quote today from the poet Philip Larkin that reminded me of Sanshô:

“Most people, I’m convinced, don’t think about life at all. They grab what they think they want and the subsequent consequences keep them busy in an endless chain till they’re carried out feet first.”

Sansho with a
branding iron.
Sanshô is a first-rate grabber of things he wants.  In his world, greed is the primary mover.  When he presents a chest of valuables to a royal envoy, he assumes that wealth can buy happiness.  The envoy responds just as expected—he wants wealth and power, too.  This is the world according to Sanshô.  As Bordwell says, “the world we live in… belongs to its bailiffs.”

But remember that Sanshô lives within the same prison walls that enclose his slaves.  They’re all inside together.  Freedom is on the other side.  It’s not easy to cross over and is it even worth the risk?  Life is harsh on the other side as well.

Our last view of Sansho, trussed up and soon to be
sent into exile.

At the conclusion of Sansho the Bailiff, we are left with several worlds to contemplate.  There’s the ego-driven world of Sanshô.  Contrasting with that, there’s the benevolent world of Zushiô’s father Masauji, who believes all people should be treated with mercy and compassion.  Zushiô returns to his father’s path, embracing the ideals that his father and sister lived and died for.  Neither ends well:  Masauji is sent into exile and the movie closes with Zushiô in poverty.  This is the opposite of American prosperity theology where goodness is rewarded by material wealth.  As the end title appears on the screen, this is what we’re left to grapple with—a choice to cast our lot with either Sanshô’s materialist world or the impractical ethical idealism of Zushiô’s father.  We’ve seen that both roads can lead to unhappiness and exile.

Most of us are rarely presented with even that clear a choice.  There’s a third way, perhaps the easiest way, where one maneuvers through life disengaged from the work of either ambition or mercy.  The final crane shot carries the viewer away from the love of Zushiô and Tamaki and leaves us instead with a seaweed gatherer, calmly doing his job, oblivious of the scene taking place nearby.  It’s a haunting closing image that reminds me of the concluding stanza of W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The seaweed gatherer is like the ploughman.  His life goes on—he has work of his own to do—even as something amazing happens just yards away.

The seaweed gatherer toiling on the shore.

Compassion Expressed in Images

“Is the sea safe?”

Tamaki’s question is really beside the point.  The sea is unavoidable, inescapable.

In Sansho the Bailiff, seas and lakes are emphatically not safe—they are strongly associated with separation and death.  Yet the movie also presents these bodies of water as the settings for healing and mourning.  They appear primal, suggesting a world outside of time.  In the essay “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer,” film critic Robin Wood points out the difficulty of assigning easy symbolic meanings to the imagery in Sansho the Bailiff:

“Mizoguchi never imposes symbolism on the action.  Accordingly, the significance of the recurrent imagery is to be interpreted flexibly, in relation to the events with which it is linked;  as the film progresses, it accumulates complex emotional overtones from the shifting juxtapositions, until by the end the visual presence of the sea makes emotionally present for us all the past events with which fire and water have been associated, becoming one of the means by which Mizoguchi deepens and intensifies our response to the last scene as the point to which every impulse in the film has moved.”

 Above: A kidnapping at sea.
Below: A lament by the sea.
The children Zushiô and Anju are separated from their mother Tamaki in a harrowing abduction scene in which Ubatake, the family servant, drowns.  Later, Tamaki runs to the sea in a hopeless attempt to escape from her life on Sado Island, only to be left crippled and crying for her lost children on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Anju dies in a lake.  As if in a series of pilgrimages, Zushiô returns to each member of the family in the second half of the movie.  In each case, a body of water is positioned as an important element within the frame.  Zushiô visits his father’s grave, located at the top of a hill with the sea in the background.  He visits the lake where his sister took her life.  And he meets his mother in a cove by the sea.

Zushio's pilgrimages to father, sister, and mother.
Zushio's descent to the cove,
with a giant tree in the foreground
and the sea in the background.
In the final scene, the sun is nearing the horizon as Zushiô reaches the end of his quest.  He enters a landscape that appears timeless, passing giant trees and entering a picturesque cove, austere and sheltered from the world.  Life and death go unnoticed in this place—a tsunami struck here two years previous, but no one seems to know the names or the number of the dead.  For another movie equivalent of the trees, think of the Sequoias in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)… and for the cove, both the stretch of beach where astronaut Taylor pounds the sand in Planet of the Apes (1968) and the beach where Anthony Quinn breaks down at the end of La Strada (1954).  Quests often end at the shoreline.

Looking closely at that last scene in Sansho the Bailiff, the first shot—following Zushiô on his descent into the cove—is introductory.  Then the second shot serves as the real beginning of the final sequence.  This is the shot that will be reversed to close the movie, forming a sublime set of bookends enclosing one of the most moving scenes ever filmed.  The opening bookend is a crane shot that ascends to a significant height, finally uniting Zushiô and Tamaki within the frame.  Then, following eight medium shots and close-ups that take the viewer through the heart-rending details of their reunion, Mizoguchi retreats to a closing crane shot that leaves Zushiô and Tamaki, now clinging to each other with nothing left to say, and pans left to end on a final image of the steadily-working seaweed gatherer and the eternal sea.

Above:  Zushio and Tamaki hug in the penultimate shot.
Below:  Cut to a crane shot that pans left to return to
the image of the seaweed gatherer still at work.

Reference Sources

Personal Views: Explorations in Film by Robin Wood
Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato
“Sanshô dayû and the Overthrow of History” by Carole Cavanaugh, essay included with Criterion DVD
“Mizo Dayû” by Dudley Andrew, essay included with Criterion DVD
Criterion DVD commentary by Jeffrey Angles

Watch Sansho the Bailiff
Purchase Sansho the Bailiff through The Criterion CollectionAmazon, or Barnes and Noble
Rent Sansho the Bailiff at Netflix or other rental service

© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: Forgiveness

essay 5 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Kannon Shrine at Kiyo Falls,
Sakanoshita, Tokaido.
Katsuoshika Hokusai,
Japan, circa 1833-34,
color woodblock print.
From the collection of the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Sansho the Bailiff:  Introduction to this Essay Series

A profound meditation on compassion and mercy, Sansho the Bailiff (1954) builds its power through the ethical wisdom of its narrative and the beauty and power of its visual expression.

For each of these six entries, there will be a two-pronged focus, first on the ethics of Sansho the Bailiff and second on visual analysis of targeted scenes.

The Ethics of Sansho the Bailiff:  Forgiveness

“One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies.  Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties.  For the offender, they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore.  The result of the apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”
 Aaron Lazare
On Apology

There are three scenes in Sansho the Bailiff that can reduce me to tears.  Two of them are obvious.  Anju’s suicide and Zushiô’s climactic reunion with his mother are widely acknowledged as emotional powerhouses.

But there’s a third scene that I find nearly as powerful and it’s received comparatively little attention.  This is the short but devastating scene where Zushiô voluntarily humbles himself and begs for forgiveness:

Zushiô has been appointed governor of the province.  Remarkably self-composed, he asserts himself within Sanshô’s compound, orders Sanshô taken prisoner, and then confidently walks out of the manor to speak to the slaves.  His voice breaking with emotion, Zushiô declares that all slaves are now free, with a choice to either leave or remain and work for fair wages.  Zushiô pauses, seeing a familiar face:  Nio, an old man whom he once branded.

Zushiô kneels in front of Nio, who studies his face and then recognizes him.  The brand is still clear on Nio’s forehead.  Zushiô says:  “My sins in branding you can never be erased.  But I ask you to let this (the declaration that frees the slaves) make up for part of it.”

Above: Zushio brands Nio, with Sansho
in the background, indicating approval.
Below: Tamaki is tortured offscreen as
her master watches, indicating approval.
Zushiô’s apology refers back to the scene where he branded Nio at the request of Sanshô.  The branding was the rock bottom of Zushiô’s character arc.  To make it even more appalling, Zushiô’s cruelty is linked to a subsequent scene where his mother Tamaki, living as a courtesan on the far-away island of Sado, is brutally punished by her owner by having her Achilles tendon cut to prevent her from further attempts at escape.  In a movie where family relations are paramount, Zushiô’s act is doubly condemned by its association with a horrifying punishment exacted against his mother.  From this low point, the story documents the redemption of Zushiô, fueled largely by the self-sacrificing act of his sister Anju.

Returning to his family’s ethics, Zushiô seeks redemption through his political actions as governor by a morally just prohibition of slavery in his province.  But Zushiô cannot find redemption simply through a well-meaning political act.  He has to directly confront his past actions in order to move ahead with his own life.  He must kneel and apologize.  This act follows the definition of apology set forth by Aaron Lazar, former Chancellor and Dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in his book On Apology:

“(The word) ‘apology’ refers to an encounter between two parties in which one party, the offender, acknowledges responsibility for an offense or grievance, and expresses regret or remorse to a second party, the aggrieved.”

The personal encounter is necessary.  Zushiô, the offender, must accept responsibility and ask for remorse from Nio, the aggrieved.  The scene is even more moving for its stress on the difference in social status between the two.  The governor kneels and begs forgiveness of the slave.

Then Zushiô stands and asks what has become of his sister.  As he learns the tragic news of Anju’s death, he realizes that his redemption is not yet complete.  The emotionally-wrenching apology is only one step along the hard road that he must follow.

The scene immediately following the forgiveness scene:
Zushio visits the lake where his sister took her life.

Forgiveness Expressed in Images

In interviews, director Kenji Mizoguchi promoted his cinematic vision of one-shot/one-scene.  He asserted that a moving camera should be able to capture all necessary details and build the appropriate emotional climate from the beginning to the end of a scene.  No cutting between shots should be necessary.  In film language, this approach privileges mise-en-scène (design and arrangement within the frame) over montage (editing from one shot to the next).

In practice, Mizoguchi rarely held to the ideal that he preached.  While the key scenes in his movies take strong advantage of crane shots, tracks, pans, and tilts, he nevertheless usually cuts to individual shots.  And the scenes are typically more powerful for his intelligent, though limited, use of montage.

Zushio descends into the
crowd of Sansho's slaves.
The forgiveness scene in Sansho the Bailiff approaches his one-shot/one-scene ideal.  Starting at the moment when Zushiô sweeps out of Sanshô’s manor, the scene consists of only two shots.  The one cut comes in the middle and is so smoothly handled that the scene could easily be recalled as a single take.

The scene begins with an overhead exterior shot of Zushiô grandly exiting Sanshô’s manor and walking down the steps into a crowd of slaves.  Zushiô’s bright ceremonial clothes brilliantly contrast with the drab and ragged clothing of the slaves.  As he moves toward the camera, the camera keeps Zushiô centered in the action while slowly craning lower to finally settle into an eye-level perspective.  This visual approach establishes Zushiô’s political control over the situation, even as he delivers his speech with evident emotion.  He dominates the shot, establishing him as a formidable figure—to a much greater degree than Sanshô has ever been privileged in a shot.

Cut to…

The old slave Nio, the brand on his forehead fully visible.

Zushiô’s perspective, looking down upon Nio, the old slave he once branded on the forehead.  As Zushiô kneels, he re-enters the frame.  For their brief dialogue, Zushiô is filmed from behind (echoing the earlier scene where he humbly listened to his father’s teachings).  Seen in closeup, Nio becomes the focus of the viewer’s attention.  Their shared humanity is emphasized, both through the visual composition and Zushiô’s public apology.

When Zushiô stands, the camera rises with him (via a tracking crane movement), following him as he retraces his steps back through the crowd.  As he approaches a group of women, the camera moves ahead of Zushiô to create a new composition.  Instead of the primary focus upon Zushiô, he now shares the frame with Kayano, who shares the news of Anju’s death.

The camera moves to follow Zushio as he makes his way
back through the crowd...
Kayano answers his question,
revealing Anju's fate.

It’s intimidating to consider the directorial mastery necessary to organize a remarkable scene like this.  Each of the three actors deliver performances that sear into the memory.  Two of these actors are separated by a considerable distance, only united by the movement of the camera.  Linking the movement and serving as the center of the narrative, the actor Yoshiaki Hanayagi who plays Zushiô must convey a strength of character that the viewer has not previously seen in his character.  He pulls it off beautifully.  Meanwhile, Mizoguchi must direct and choreograph the unruly crowd, keeping their actions believable.  The moving camera must capture Zushiô’s power and status as governor and then just as effectively convey moments of intimate confession.   In over a century of filmmaking spread across hundreds of countries, only a few dozen directors have shown a comparable mastery.  This one scene is like a film school in miniature.

1954 Japanese poster for
Sansho the Bailiff.

Reference Sources

Personal Views: Explorations in Film by Robin Wood
Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato
“Sanshô dayû and the Overthrow of History” by Carole Cavanaugh, essay included with Criterion DVD
“Mizo Dayû” by Dudley Andrew, essay included with Criterion DVD
Criterion DVD commentary by Jeffrey Angles

Watch Sansho the Bailiff
Purchase Sansho the Bailiff through The Criterion CollectionAmazon, or Barnes and Noble
Rent Sansho the Bailiff at Netflix or other rental service

© 2013 Lee Price

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: Self-Sacrifice

essay 4 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Kannon Bosatsu,
Japan, 12th century,
carved wood.
From the collection of the
Los Angeles County
Museum of Art.
Sansho the Bailiff:  Introduction to this Essay Series

A profound meditation on compassion and mercy, Sansho the Bailiff (1954) builds its power through the ethical wisdom of its narrative and the beauty and power of its visual expression.  For each of these six entries, there will be a two-pronged focus, first on the ethics of Sansho the Bailiff and second on visual analysis of targeted scenes.

The Ethics of Sansho the Bailiff:  Giri

My son Terry says that I have to address giri.  I trust him on this.  A fairly sophisticated follower of anime, Terry has picked up on a fair amount of Japanese culture over the years.  He recently watched Sansho the Bailiff with me and liked it very much, but thought I was probably missing some cultural attitudes that are assumed in the movie.

Of course, he’s right.  Noted film critic Robin Wood dealt with a similar problem in the opening paragraphs of “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer,” his essay on director Kenji Mizoguchi and Sansho the Bailiff.  A friend confronted Wood with the question of whether an outsider—with limited understanding of Japanese culture—should even attempt critical analysis of a movie like Sansho the Bailiff.  Wood thoughtfully responded that it was possible:  “… (give or take a few details) the essential significance of Sansho Dayu can be deduced from the specific realization of the film.”  Although I suspect some those pesky give-or-take details may be more important than Wood suggests, I’ve nevertheless blundered forward with these essays, hoping that I am seeing enough of that essential significance.

Terry would have challenged Robin Wood, too.  His contention is that you have to have some understanding of giri to see it.  After all, it would be unreasonable to expect Wood or me to pick up on a subtext that’s never mentioned.  And, unfortunately, it’s in the nature of giri to remain unspoken.

Zushio's letter of resignation.
It’s not helpful that the word giri has no English equivalent.  It’s a concept that is largely foreign to Western culture, referencing a very different code of behavior.  To the best of my understanding, giri refers to a sense of obligation that individuals nurture toward their communities (family, neighborhood, business, and state).  With giri, there is always an unspoken expectation that duties will be fulfilled and debt-based obligations will be repaid.  The businessman will stand by the company that employs him; the son will stand by his family.  Gifts will be appropriately reciprocated.  The individual will not bring shame upon others in their community.  It’s an elaborate and unwritten social code that is silently followed.  You’re just supposed to know these things.

Zushio fulfills his obligation,
resigning the governorship.
Giri is probably most explicitly depicted in Sansho the Bailiff in the scene where Zushiô  resigns his governorship.  In following his obligations to family, Zushiô  is aware that he has overstepped his proper bounds as governor and therefore he accepts the unspoken expectation that he must respond appropriately.  He submits a letter of resignation and walks away, silently fulfilling his side of the social contract.

But that’s not the only place where giri is operative.  Terry thinks giri is a significant component of the scene where Anju sacrifices herself in a suicide by drowning.  In the context of the narrative, she commits the act solely to benefit the family.  It increases Zushiô ’s chances of succeeding in his escape from the slave compound and it increases the obligation of Zushiô  to maintain his side of the family contract.

My Terry-inspired research into giri uncovered yet another Japanese concept that may be in play during the key scene of Anju’s suicide.  It’s the Zen Buddhist concept of enso, in which a circle symbolizes, well, practically everything—the yin and yang of the universe, along with our potential mental ability to achieve an enlightened awareness of a great unity.  I think the spreading circles on the water are enso.  Even without an understanding of the specific spiritual ideas behind enso, it may be impossible to miss the universal nature of the symbol.  This may count as that “essential significance” that Wood believes is available to all viewers, even when we’re unaware of the exact culture referent.  Anju’s act will create ripples that will expand outward from the center.  Even a solitary act taking place in seclusion can have universal significance.

Enso, a Buddhist concept.

Self-Sacrifice in Action

Anju (Kyoko Kagawa). 
Some viewers feel that Sansho the Bailiff is all anti-climax after Anju’s suicide.  Certainly the movie breaks into two at this point, switching from a narrative about two children to a narrative about one.  As Anju is the most overwhelmingly sympathetic character in the movie, her death is a devastating moment.  The cutaway from the lake to the interior of a monastery begins the introduction of new themes and subplots that need time to simmer before there can be any scenes of comparable power.

The movie slows down for Anju’s suicide.  Up until this point director Kenji Mizoguchi has employed his full arsenal of visual movement—tracking shots, pans, and crane shots.  Within individual shots, he’s emphasized strong diagonals.  But all these elements are dropped for the scene by the lake.  Now the camera setups are static and the key imagery is circular and vertical.  It’s a clear break from the action, with the imagery and pacing reset for meditation.

Kayano framed by the gate.
The old slave woman Kayano, who has just helped Anju leave the compound, is drawn by curiosity to the door of the gate herself.  The fence of the compound is a natural part of the plot, but functions symbolically as well.  Slavery is inside the fence;  freedom is outside.  The prison bars of the fence divide this world and the doors are usually well guarded.  Outside the gate, Kayano first moves to the right but then returns as she looks for Anju, her figure framed within the doorway.

The series of shots of Anju at the lake are visually haunting.  The first of them is from the greatest distance, approximating the perspective of Kayano looking down the hillside to the hazy lakeshore.  Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa was known for painting leaves to achieve the high contrast of a painted screen or scroll in his exteriors—he may have done that here.  As Anju says a prayer then removes her sandals, her mother’s song quietly enters on the soundtrack.  Anju walks into the lake and Mizoguchi cuts to a closer shot of her, with the foreground vegetation framing the shot to create a circular composition.  She descends into the water to her waist.

Anju descends into the lake.

Kayano falls to her knees and prays.
Cut back to Kayano, watching on the hill.  It’s a closer shot that frames her within the vertical bars of the doorway.  She falls to her knees in prayer.  This shot discreetly spares us a view of Anju’s last moments.

When the movie cuts back to the lake for an even closer shot, all we see are the expanding concentric circles.

Expanding circles on the lake.
There is no dissolve to the next scene, even though it constitutes a major break in the narrative.  It’s a straight cutaway to a static shot of men praying in front of a giant Buddha in a monastery.  Visual themes from the past scene are beautifully retained.  The doorway frame that we just saw Kayano praying through now becomes a frame of pillars, still containing an image of prayer.  From the expanding circles of the lake, we move to a Buddha, framed in circles.  Anju’s act is spiritual, linked to the compassionate Buddhism that informs the movie.

Vertical frames, prayer, and circles silhouetting
the Buddha, as the scene abruptly shifts
from the lakeside to the monastery.

Reference Sources

Personal Views: Explorations in Film by Robin Wood
Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato
“Sanshô dayû and the Overthrow of History” by Carole Cavanaugh, essay included with Criterion DVD
“Mizo Dayû” by Dudley Andrew, essay included with Criterion DVD
Criterion DVD commentary by Jeffrey Angles

Watch Sansho the Bailiff
Purchase Sansho the Bailiff through The Criterion CollectionAmazon, or Barnes and Noble
Rent Sansho the Bailiff at Netflix or other rental service

© 2013 Lee Price

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: The Primacy of Family

essay 3 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Kannon Holding a
Lotus Seat and Seishi
in the Pose of Orant,

wood and gilt lacquer,
Probably 17th century,
Edo Period, Japan.
From the collection of the
Yale University
Art Gallery.
Sansho the Bailiff:  Introduction to this Essay Series

A profound meditation on compassion and mercy, Sansho the Bailiff (1954) builds its power through the ethical wisdom of its narrative and the beauty and power of its visual expression.  For each of these six entries, there will be a two-pronged focus, first on the ethics of Sansho the Bailiff and second on visual analysis of targeted scenes.

The Ethics of Sansho the Bailiff:  Duty Toward Family

The conclusion of Sansho the Bailiff reminds me of the equally masterful (as well as equally ambiguous) closing scene of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931).  In his poignant comedy, Chaplin’s focus is on the nature of romantic love—a fragile emotion in a world of poverty.  Similarly, in director Kenji Mizoguchi’s Buddhist-inflected climax, Sansho the Bailiff presents love (family love in this case) persevering in a world of poverty.  In each movie, the beauty of reunion is tempered by harsh reality.

Love in a world of
poverty and blindness.
Above:  The climax of Sansho the Bailiff.
Below:  The climax of City Lights.
The love between family members in Sansho the Bailiff is understated yet undeniable.  The husband and wife love each other, mother and children love each other, and the brother and sister love each other.  The cry of the mother for her children is the most powerful force in the movie, supernaturally carrying across land and sea.  But there’s another important dimension to the love that yokes them together as a family:  Father, mother, daughter and son share a world view (as directly stated in the father’s precepts) that defines who they are.  Each of them accepts a duty to keep the family intact by retaining the principles symbolized by the miniature figure of Kwannon, the goddess of mercy.  In their lives, love and duty become entwined to the point where they are inseparable.

The children, Zushiô and Anju, must find their individual paths to express their commitment to the family and the shared ethical precepts.  Ultimately, their efforts lead neither to wealth nor happiness, but significantly they do lead toward reunion.  In the ethical perspective of the film, wealth and happiness are worth nothing compared with the completion of the circle—the reunion which confirms the family’s values.

Anju (Kyoko Kagawa)
as she urges her brother to return
to the family's values.
Both Zushiô and Anju must follow hard paths.  Anju is spared Zushiô’s internal struggle;  her moral compass is almost preternaturally unerring.  Moving through the fallen world of the slave camp, she remains unblemished by the ugliness around her.  Zushiô must face greater struggles as he moves along a more dramatically compelling character arc.  Survival instincts spar with compassion, an emotion which does not come as naturally to him as it does to Anju and Sanshô’s son Taro. Zushiô must struggle to maintain the integrity of his family in his own actions.

In the end, when Zushiô apologizes to his mother for his actions, she responds, “You do not need to apologize for anything.  I can tell by your presence that you have obeyed your father’s precepts.”  In the stark visual imagery of the climactic scene, as the two figures cling together on a tsunami-ravaged beach, it’s impossible to hear her words ironically.  They are from the heart.  Zushiô’s triumph is to end in poverty.  We are asked to accept and respect that.

And it’s a similar triumph to the one that Chaplin can claim at the close of City Lights.  Both Zushiô and Chaplin end as tramps, forgotten by a world filled with blindness and yet redeemed by their fidelity to their core values.

Left:  Zushio reunited with Tamaki in Sansho the Bailiff.
Right:  The tramp and the blind girl reunited in City Lights.

Familial Responsibility in Action

In order to call her brother Zushiô back to the teachings of the family, Anju asks him to assist her with an act of compassion.  She requests that Zushiô help her gather material to create a shelter for the ailing slave Namiji.

Above: Zushio and Anju break a
tree branch as children.
Below:  Zushio and Anju as adults.
Anju’s request sets up a situation that parallels an earlier scene, where Zushiô and Anju as children gathered branches and reeds to create an overnight shelter for their family.

The overhead shot of Anju reaching for a tree branch is a close visual replay of a memorable shot from the earlier scene.  In both cases, Anju solicits Zushiô’s help to break off a branch and they must work together to accomplish the task.  They tug at a branch and fall to the ground when it breaks, the work dissolving into child’s play as they laugh at themselves.  The brother and sister are united in their work ethic and in their deep love and respect for each other.

Left:  Breaking a tree branch, Zushio and Anju
fall to the ground as children.
Right:  In an echo of earlier times, Zushio and Anju
fall to the ground as adults.
The dialogue further reinforces the ties between the two scenes.  Anju explicitly makes the connection with the past, while Zushiô silently accepts her implied admonition that his current work for Sanshô is unworthy of his family.  In a borderline-supernatural moment, Anju then hears her mother calling their names, a distant sound barely perceptible on the soundtrack.  This, also, echoes the earlier scene, where the children heard their mother calling them back to the shelter.

The cinematography, the soundtrack, and the dialogue all work together to call Zushiô back to his familial responsibilities.  The scene climaxes at the critical moment when Zushiô says, “Anju, let’s run away.”  With this statement, the narrative of Zushiô’s life shifts.  He has returned to the family and his story must now play out according to the family’s values.

Brother and sister working together:
Anju plans Zushio's escape from Sansho's slave compound.

Reference Sources

Personal Views: Explorations in Film by Robin Wood
Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato
“Sanshô dayû and the Overthrow of History” by Carole Cavanaugh, essay included with Criterion DVD
“Mizo Dayû” by Dudley Andrew, essay included with Criterion DVD
Criterion DVD commentary by Jeffrey Angles

Watch Sansho the Bailiff
Purchase Sansho the Bailiff through The Criterion CollectionAmazon, or Barnes and Noble
Rent Sansho the Bailiff at Netflix or other rental service

© 2013 Lee Price