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SANSHO THE BAILIFF (Sanshô dayû)(director: Kenji Mizoguchi; screenwriters: story by Ogai Mori/Fuji Yahiro; cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa; editor: Mitsuzô Miyata; music: Fumio Hayasaka/Tamekichi Mochizuki/Kanahichi Odera; cast: Yoshiaki Hanayagi (Zushio), Kyoko Kagawa (Anju), Kinuyo Tanaka (Tamaki), Eitaro Shindo (Sansho), Akitake Kono (Taro), Masao Shimizu (Masauji Taira), Kikue Mori (Priestess), Kazukimi Okuni (Norimura), Noriko Tachibana (Namiji), Ichiro Sugai (Nio), Ken Mitsuda (Fujiwara); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Masaichi Nagata; Criterion Collection, The; 1954-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)
“It’s a masterpiece in its simplicity of telling a compelling story and its depth of understanding the human condition.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Kenji Mizoguchi (“A Geisha”/”Life of Oharu”/”The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum”) masterfully reaches back to a Japanese folk tale of the feudal period during the 11th century to depict the barbarism of a dark age and also makes it into a meditation on the fate of the individual.

A kind-hearted provincial governor, Taira Masauji (Masao Shimizu), has been exiled by his political opponents for his kindness and honesty to peasants, and before he departs tells his son to always remember “Without mercy, a man is not a human being” and gives him an amulet of the goddess of mercy. On the journey to visit Taira six years later in his remote island, his wife, Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka), and two small children are separated through the deceit of a priestess (Kikue Mori) they met in the woods. Tamaki is taken to a brothel on Sado Island while the children, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), are forced to be slaves for 10 years to the ruthless and corrupt tax collector Sancho (Eitaro Shindo). Zushio has forgotten his father’s words of wisdom and cruelly punishes other slaves that Sansho’s own son, Taro (Akitake Kono), can’t because he’s too much of a weakling (Taro realizes his fate and becomes a monk). Zushio, now an adult, finally escapes and his sister drowns herself rather than to be tortured into informing on her brother. Zushio makes his way to the capital, Kyoto, where he learns that his deceased father is honored for his humanity, and he’s appointed governor of the province where Sancho resides in his fortress. Zushio frees the slaves and then resigns his post to search for his mother. In the end, after twenty years of misery, Zushio finds her, lame and blind, living in poverty in a hut on a distant island. Though there’s no resolution or comeuppance to the villains, the hard-pressed family is reunited spiritually.

It’s both a film of immense visual beauty and an impassioned look at mankind’s moral struggles to lead a good life with compassion for others. It’s a masterpiece in its simplicity of telling a compelling story and its depth of understanding the human condition.

The period drama, won the Venice Golden Lion in 1954.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”