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

1 comment:

  1. 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. good essay writing The roundness of the bowl becomes a recurrent visual theme, accentuated here by a sharedessaysmovement—as the wife lifts her bowl, the scene dissolves to her husband’s lifting a bowl to his lips.