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

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