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

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