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

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