Monday, July 1, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: Self-Sacrifice

essay 4 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Kannon Bosatsu,
Japan, 12th century,
carved wood.
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:  Giri

My son Terry says that I have to address giri.  I trust him on this.  A fairly sophisticated follower of anime, Terry has picked up on a fair amount of Japanese culture over the years.  He recently watched Sansho the Bailiff with me and liked it very much, but thought I was probably missing some cultural attitudes that are assumed in the movie.

Of course, he’s right.  Noted film critic Robin Wood dealt with a similar problem in the opening paragraphs of “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer,” his essay on director Kenji Mizoguchi and Sansho the Bailiff.  A friend confronted Wood with the question of whether an outsider—with limited understanding of Japanese culture—should even attempt critical analysis of a movie like Sansho the Bailiff.  Wood thoughtfully responded that it was possible:  “… (give or take a few details) the essential significance of Sansho Dayu can be deduced from the specific realization of the film.”  Although I suspect some those pesky give-or-take details may be more important than Wood suggests, I’ve nevertheless blundered forward with these essays, hoping that I am seeing enough of that essential significance.

Terry would have challenged Robin Wood, too.  His contention is that you have to have some understanding of giri to see it.  After all, it would be unreasonable to expect Wood or me to pick up on a subtext that’s never mentioned.  And, unfortunately, it’s in the nature of giri to remain unspoken.

Zushio's letter of resignation.
It’s not helpful that the word giri has no English equivalent.  It’s a concept that is largely foreign to Western culture, referencing a very different code of behavior.  To the best of my understanding, giri refers to a sense of obligation that individuals nurture toward their communities (family, neighborhood, business, and state).  With giri, there is always an unspoken expectation that duties will be fulfilled and debt-based obligations will be repaid.  The businessman will stand by the company that employs him; the son will stand by his family.  Gifts will be appropriately reciprocated.  The individual will not bring shame upon others in their community.  It’s an elaborate and unwritten social code that is silently followed.  You’re just supposed to know these things.

Zushio fulfills his obligation,
resigning the governorship.
Giri is probably most explicitly depicted in Sansho the Bailiff in the scene where Zushiô  resigns his governorship.  In following his obligations to family, Zushiô  is aware that he has overstepped his proper bounds as governor and therefore he accepts the unspoken expectation that he must respond appropriately.  He submits a letter of resignation and walks away, silently fulfilling his side of the social contract.

But that’s not the only place where giri is operative.  Terry thinks giri is a significant component of the scene where Anju sacrifices herself in a suicide by drowning.  In the context of the narrative, she commits the act solely to benefit the family.  It increases Zushiô ’s chances of succeeding in his escape from the slave compound and it increases the obligation of Zushiô  to maintain his side of the family contract.

My Terry-inspired research into giri uncovered yet another Japanese concept that may be in play during the key scene of Anju’s suicide.  It’s the Zen Buddhist concept of enso, in which a circle symbolizes, well, practically everything—the yin and yang of the universe, along with our potential mental ability to achieve an enlightened awareness of a great unity.  I think the spreading circles on the water are enso.  Even without an understanding of the specific spiritual ideas behind enso, it may be impossible to miss the universal nature of the symbol.  This may count as that “essential significance” that Wood believes is available to all viewers, even when we’re unaware of the exact culture referent.  Anju’s act will create ripples that will expand outward from the center.  Even a solitary act taking place in seclusion can have universal significance.

Enso, a Buddhist concept.

Self-Sacrifice in Action

Anju (Kyoko Kagawa). 
Some viewers feel that Sansho the Bailiff is all anti-climax after Anju’s suicide.  Certainly the movie breaks into two at this point, switching from a narrative about two children to a narrative about one.  As Anju is the most overwhelmingly sympathetic character in the movie, her death is a devastating moment.  The cutaway from the lake to the interior of a monastery begins the introduction of new themes and subplots that need time to simmer before there can be any scenes of comparable power.

The movie slows down for Anju’s suicide.  Up until this point director Kenji Mizoguchi has employed his full arsenal of visual movement—tracking shots, pans, and crane shots.  Within individual shots, he’s emphasized strong diagonals.  But all these elements are dropped for the scene by the lake.  Now the camera setups are static and the key imagery is circular and vertical.  It’s a clear break from the action, with the imagery and pacing reset for meditation.

Kayano framed by the gate.
The old slave woman Kayano, who has just helped Anju leave the compound, is drawn by curiosity to the door of the gate herself.  The fence of the compound is a natural part of the plot, but functions symbolically as well.  Slavery is inside the fence;  freedom is outside.  The prison bars of the fence divide this world and the doors are usually well guarded.  Outside the gate, Kayano first moves to the right but then returns as she looks for Anju, her figure framed within the doorway.

The series of shots of Anju at the lake are visually haunting.  The first of them is from the greatest distance, approximating the perspective of Kayano looking down the hillside to the hazy lakeshore.  Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa was known for painting leaves to achieve the high contrast of a painted screen or scroll in his exteriors—he may have done that here.  As Anju says a prayer then removes her sandals, her mother’s song quietly enters on the soundtrack.  Anju walks into the lake and Mizoguchi cuts to a closer shot of her, with the foreground vegetation framing the shot to create a circular composition.  She descends into the water to her waist.

Anju descends into the lake.

Kayano falls to her knees and prays.
Cut back to Kayano, watching on the hill.  It’s a closer shot that frames her within the vertical bars of the doorway.  She falls to her knees in prayer.  This shot discreetly spares us a view of Anju’s last moments.

When the movie cuts back to the lake for an even closer shot, all we see are the expanding concentric circles.

Expanding circles on the lake.
There is no dissolve to the next scene, even though it constitutes a major break in the narrative.  It’s a straight cutaway to a static shot of men praying in front of a giant Buddha in a monastery.  Visual themes from the past scene are beautifully retained.  The doorway frame that we just saw Kayano praying through now becomes a frame of pillars, still containing an image of prayer.  From the expanding circles of the lake, we move to a Buddha, framed in circles.  Anju’s act is spiritual, linked to the compassionate Buddhism that informs the movie.

Vertical frames, prayer, and circles silhouetting
the Buddha, as the scene abruptly shifts
from the lakeside to the monastery.

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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