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

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: The Impermanence of All Things

essay 2 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Kannon Bosatsu
(Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara),
Princess Misuko (Japan,
Hanging scroll, ink on silk.
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:  Impermanence

Sansho the Bailiff depicts a stoic acceptance of change as a proper attitude to bring to life.  Buddhists talk of impermanence as the way of the world.  Everything will change.  It’s not surprising to see:  Governors and wealthy bailiffs sent into exile;  high-born sons turn their back on luxury and accept a life of monastic poverty;  and refined ladies descend into prostitution.

But while everything changes, in another sense nothing changes.  That’s the paradox at the core of the last scene.  In order for the family to remain true to itself, the surviving members must accept the sacrifices and the degradation brought upon them.   As the mother says to her son, “I know that you have followed your father’s teachings, and that is why we have been able to meet again.”  Although utterly devastated, the family is intact and justified.

The year after he made Sansho the Bailiff, Kenji Mizoguchi directed his version of the classic 12th century story The Tale of the Heike, under the title Taira Clan Saga (Shin heike monogatari).  The opening lines of this ancient epic poem were translated by Helen C. McCullough in 1988.  They have resonance for Sansho the Bailiff:

“The sound of the Gion shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sōla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline.  The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”
The Tale of the Heike
Translated by Helen C. McCullough

Zushio paying respect at his father's
grave and at the lake.

In Sansho the Bailiff, impermanence is the natural order of the world.  No one grieves about change, even when it is painful.  It is accepted.  Zushiô stands by the lake where his sister drowned and kneels by the grave where his father is buried.  And then he resumes his course, endeavoring to live the life that they have pointed him toward.

The concept of wabi, a cultivated appreciation of all aspects of existence, enables meaning to be found even amid the chaos of change.  Dichotomies of good and evil, divisions between the ugly and the beautiful, lose their meaning in this philosophy. 

Wabi means that even in straitened circumstances no thought of hardship arises.  Even amid insufficiency, one is moved by no feeling of want.  Even when faced with failure, one does not brood over injustice.”
Wind in the Pines:  Classic Writings on the
Way of Tea as a Buddhist Path
Edited by Dennis Hirota

These concepts are so ingrained in Sansho the Bailiff that the wrenching final scene on the beach retains a deep sense of dignity.  The hardship is counterbalanced by the beauty of the completed circle of reunion.  Maybe it’s wabi.  Transcendence is touched even in the trappings of outward misery.

Impermanence Expressed in Images

Detail of the road that Taro travels.
“You have a difficult road ahead of you,” Sanshô’s son Taro cautions Zushiô while protecting him in the Imperial Temple.  The roads are very difficult and unpredictable in Sansho the Bailiff.  Eventually, all the major characters set out upon these winding paths (and that even includes Sanshô, who spends most of the movie haughtily confident of his situation).  The very first shot of the movie introduces the family as travelers on a forest path.  These roads head into uncertainty, and the characters must stoically accept the impermanence of their situations.

In Sansho the Bailiff, the far shots of people following paths are beautifully composed, usually serving as a memorable last image to close a scene.  They signal key transitional moments in the lives of the characters depicted.

The young man Taro is nothing like his father, the villainous bailiff Sanshô.  Taro is drawn to the enslaved children, Zushiô and Anju, and he embraces the ethical teachings that Zushiô recites to him.  Disgusted with the greed and cruelty he sees around him, Taro resolves to make a clean break from the brutal world of his father.

As he prepares to leave the slave compound forever, Taro stops by the hut where the children are sleeping.  In an act of compassion to begin his new life, he tenderly covers the children with a blanket of straw, the equivalent of a parent pulling up the covers.  It is a beautiful grace note.

Taro covers the children then goes
to the gate of the compound.
Then Taro leaves the compound.  The final image is a magnificent far shot of Taro disappearing into the distance on the mountain path.  He accepts the necessity of transition—the impermanence of his position in life—without looking back.  It is the last shot of the first half of the movie, leading into an intertitle that announces the passage of ten years.

The far shot of Taro’s departure is later echoed by a similar shot when Zushiô flees the compound.  As with Taro, Zushiô performs an act of compassion as he leaves, carrying the ailing slave Namiji with him to freedom.  At this point, Zushiô’s life is in transition once again.

From the other side of the fence, the camera tracks with Taro as he
approaches the gate and walks out into freedom, released from
the barred prison of his father's world.
Dissolve to...

Taro walking off into the distance down the winding road.

In a visual echo of the departure of Taro,
Zushio must follow winding paths during his escape
from Sansho's slave compound.

Later, Mizoguchi employs a very different visual strategy to capture another key point of transition in Zushiô’s life.  When he resigns his governorship, the camera follows Zushiô as he walks behind a translucent screen, the shot lingering upon his indistinct image as he leaves this part of his life forever.  When we see him seconds later, Zushiô will be dressed as a peasant.  The images smoothly carry us from royalty to poverty using only a screen and a dissolve to elide a precipitous transition.

Zushio behind the screen in the background
in a visual transition from governor to peasant.

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 20, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: The Need for Mercy

essay 1 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

lacquered and gilt wood.
Japan, Kamakura Period
From the collection of the
Los Angeles County
Museum of Art
“This is the goddess of mercy, Kwannon.
A family treasure.  Think of this as
my principle.  Keep it in remembrance
of me.  Always keep it with you.”

Sansho the Bailiff:  The Need for Mercy

A profound meditation on compassion and mercy, Sansho the Bailiff (1954) builds its power through the ethical wisdom of its narrative coupled with the intensity 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:  Mercy

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) is the story of a family that believed in the primacy of mercy.

Taking place in 10th century Japan, Masauji is a governor of a manor northeast of Honshu.  Aware that events are occurring that may tear his family apart, Masauji shares his most basic principles with his young son Zushiô.  He asks Zushiô to repeat them:

“Without mercy, man is like a beast.  Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.  Men are created equal.  Everyone is entitled to their happiness.”

Then Masauji gives a small statue to Zushiô, saying:

“This is the goddess of mercy, Kwannon.  A family treasure.  Think of this as my principle.  Keep it in remembrance of me.  Always keep it with you.”

Also commonly known by the names Kannon or Guanyin, Kwannon is the Buddhist Bodhisattva of mercy.  The statue becomes an emblem of Masauji’s enlightened principles.

Zushio visits the lake where his sister has drowned.
As the story unfolds, Masauji’s principles are shown to be impractical.  Neither Masauji nor his son Zushiô can hold onto power and exercise it effectively while enacting them.  Goodness does not lead to more goodness—despite the best of intentions, things turn ugly.  When Zushiô frees the slaves at Sansho’s compound, they respond with madness and violence.  Sansho’s manor burns to the ground, very likely leading to increased poverty and misery.

The movie’s opening intertitle states that the story takes place in “an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.”  But human nature hasn’t changed—the suffering depicted is still with us.  When Kenji Mizoguchi directed Sansho the Bailiff in 1954, Japan was still coming to terms with the horrors of World War II.  Sixty years later, the world still has poverty, cruelty, and war.  When times get tough, we cut food stamps and Medicaid.  It remains impractical to champion the side of the poor.

Closeup of the Kwannon statue.
And so the movie dismisses the notion that mankind is called to be practical.  Instead, we are challenged to awaken as human beings, like  Masauji and Zushiô who are justified not because they gain worldly success but because they have compassion for others.

Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.

Always be merciful.

Sansho the Bailiff:  Mercy in Action

I want to look closely at the scene where Masauji shares his principles with Zushiô.  It’s the second of three flashbacks, each providing vital backstory information.  The viewer is led into these flashbacks through dissolves, with some deliberate ambiguity regarding whose flashback we’re watching.  Sometime the flashbacks open through one family member’s perspective only to dissolve out through a closeup of another family member.  These effects are rendered so precisely that they must be considered intentional, providing a visual shorthand to suggest the tight bonds of this family and the strength of their shared memories.

The slow dissolve into the second flashback moves us from wife (Tamaki) in the present to her husband (Masauji) in the past, lingering for a tranquil moment to hold both as equals within the frame.  The roundness of the bowl becomes a recurrent visual theme, accentuated here by a shared movement—as the wife lifts her bowl, the scene dissolves to her husband’s lifting a bowl to his lips.

Entering the flashback through a dissolve in Sansho the Bailiff (1954).

Masauji instructs Zushio
in top two shots;  the third
shot is a later echo with
Taro as the student.
The first three shots of the flashback (closeup to medium shot to far shot) depict a reprimand from an uncle, criticizing Masauji for being too merciful to the peasants.  When the uncle indignantly leaves the room, there is a dissolve to a medium shot of Masauji, Tamaki, and their son Zushiô, whose back is turned to the camera.  The intact family is held tightly within the frame—Masauji as the benevolent patriarch, Tamaki silently supportive, and Zushiô in shadow, his ultimate personality still unclear.  

Masauji issues instructions to Tamaki first then turns to his son.  There is a cut to closer shot of Masauji and Zushiô, with the boy’s face still turned from the camera.  Our full attention is directed toward Masauji, as he shares the four principles quoted above.

(Later in the movie, the strategy of filming the student from behind is echoed in the scene where Sanshô’s adult son Taro is taught the four principles by Zushiô.)

After sharing with his son, Masauji stands and walks toward the camera.  Cut to a small shrine on a nearby table, with a Buddha figure in the background, the small Kwannon statue, and a bowl of burning incense.  The lighting highlights the Kwannon.  The image of the Buddha will reappear later in the film at a very critical point (the cutaway from Anju’s drowning).  The bowl in the foreground links to the movie’s many other images of roundness and circularity.  Masauji’s hand enters and takes the Kwannon statue.

Images with Buddha:  In the cabinet with the Kwannon
and in the cutaway following Sanju's drowning.

Medium shot:  The camera pans to follow Masauji as he returns to his wife and son.  He gives the Kwannon to Zushiô, who is prompted to repeat his father’s principles.

The flashback ends as the shot dissolves to a closeup of the Kwannon, now wrapped in silk and carried as a pendant by Zushiô as he walks along a rural trail.  The camera pulls back to a reverse-tracking medium shot and we hear Zushiô repeating his father’s principles aloud.

Upper left:  Dissolve from gift of the Kwannon statue
to Zushio with the Kwannon as a pendant, held close to him.

Aside from the artistic dissolves, director Kenji Mizoguchi opts for nothing flashy in this scene.  It is remarkably calm, almost meditative, allowing Masauji space and time to introduce the ethical principles that will drive the plot of the entire movie.  Everything centers on Masao Shimizu, the actor who plays Masauji with understated conviction.  A very strong actress when called to be, Kinuyo Tanaka is required to be passive here, supporting her husband in the traditional subordinate role.  The low-key orchestral score in the background is in the movie’s western mode (a fitting accompaniment for the western-leaning democratic egalitarian ideas promoted by Masauji) without the discordant Japanese instrumental effects that accompany many of the movie’s scenes, especially the ones of cruelty and tragedy.

The words are most important.  Mizoguchi’s long-term screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda wrote them, bringing simple dignity to the ethical ideas that Mizoguchi wanted the movie to express.

Tamaki and her husband Masauji, linked by images of circularity.

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 Collection, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble
Rent Sansho the Bailiff at Netflix or other rental service

© 2013 Lee Price

Monday, June 3, 2013

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre: 100 Years Old and Still All Rite

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
One hundred years ago at the
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
with guest blogger Waldemar Hepstein

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 like 'Snork.’

Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) is a thing of beauty, terror, and wonder. Those who were present at the notorious premiere performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, probably would not have predicted a long life for what many may have perceived as barbaric noise.  One hundred years later, the Rite is still very much with us, and indeed has become one of the most frequently performed and recorded 20th century classical compositions.  And in this case, the cliché holds true:  It sounds as fresh today as when it was first heard.

The original ballet was performed only a handful of times, in both Paris and London.  The important contributions of Stravinsky’s collaborators, Vaslav Nijinsky (choreography) and Nicholas Roerich (scenery, costume designs and co-scenarist) appeared to be lost to history for many years.  Then, in the 1980s, researchers Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer pieced together a magnificent reconstruction, first staged by the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago in 1987.  It’s highly recommended for all admirers of the piece, for even if Rite of Spring may be slight on “plot” (its subtitle is simply “Tableaux of Pagan Life in Ancient Russia”), the visuals and choreography greatly enhance appreciation of the music.

In addition to various alternative choreographies, the drama-packed music of the Rite has inspired other visuals.  Undoubtedly the most famous example is Disney’s Fantasia (1940), in which the music is accompanied by a look at Earth’s prehistory.  A sort of crash course in evolution is followed by a visit with our planet’s early inhabitants, memorably including the most exciting dinosaur fight since King Kong (1933).  Purists have reviled Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement for Fantasia, which heavily shortens and takes other signficant liberties with Stravinsky’s score.  On the other hand, there’s little doubt that Fantasia helped introduce Le Sacre du Printemps to many people, including myself.  Needless to say, the Disney animation is impeccable.

A more recent visualization is a digital animation piece by Jay Bacal and Stephen Malikowski—a beautifully done, colorful presentation somewhat reminiscent of Fantasia’s interlude with the “visual soundtrack.”

Once considered strange, avant-garde and highbrow, the Rite of Spring is now part of the “establishment,” with a secure place among the great compositions. The 100th anniversary is currently being honored with a slew of performances, articles, seminars, re-issued recordings and other tributes.  Ol’ Igor would nod his head in appreciation—and would probably take it as no more than his due!  Long may the Rite continue to thunder.

Waldemar Hepstein

© 2013 Lee Price