Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) “Revolutionary in Buddhist Robes”

Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sanshô dayû is based on a folk tale taking place in the Heian period; Chinese and Buddhist influence, as well as the one of the Imperial power were at their summit. Mizoguchi is one of the greatest Japanese directors who created during the period of Japanese cinema which may very well be called its summit, its classical period.  The film we are about to discuss shared the Silver Lion with Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Its cinematography speaks for itself, it is transient and tranquil, its stillness lets the suffering of the characters speak through their expressions of sacrifice or desperate rebellion. The thing which is most puzzling about the film is its revolutionary content, rather peculiar for the period which is discussed. At times we feel like Marx and Engels descended in Heian Japan with shaved heads (and a beard), in Buddhist robes.

A virtuous governer is sent to exile because he wanted to help the peasants, and the last words he says to his son and daughter are:  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. The sentence: “Men are created equal.” is particularly puzzling. According to Buddhism, men are theoretically equal  regarding their creation, assuming that karma is equally distributed among men. Since it  is not the case, some do good, some do bad and inequality of men emerges. This inequality is not necesserily the one of status, but an ethical one. As we will see later, governor’s son Zushiō, when in power, understands the equality of men in a practical, revolutionary manner. The equality of men, as it is known, was introduced with Christianity (equality of souls in the eyes of God) and the practical consequeces of that teaching found their secular affirmation in liberalism and socialism.

Young Zushiō and Anju, along with their mother, want to join their father, but are captured and sold into slavery. The years they spend in slavery under the tyrannical bailiff transform them. Zushiō becomes corrupt, willing to serve the bailliff, while Anju is compassionate and follows the teachings of their father. Their appearances tell of their transformation, while Anju remained elegant and noble, Zushiō looks like a wild beast. Sansho the baillif is prone to torture, exploitation and practically every form of tyranny imaginable.

Yet, Dan Schneider argues: “When we are finally introduced to Sansho (Shindô Eitarô) we see he is clearly cruel and abusive – an Oriental Simon Legree, but we also see him as a servile functionary to his boss , the Minister of the Right, the real owner of the property. Sansho, after all, is just a bailiff for the big man. Yet, many critics see him as both the ultimate evil in the film and as a corrupt character.”  In other words, in the context of a feudal system, “Sansho is not corrupt – he’s the embodiment of merciless capital efficiency. He is an early forerunner to the faceless ‘company man.'”

The parallel between Sansho and a proto-capitalist executive of a company which exploits its workers to their last breath is problematic, since here we are dealing with slave labor, and at best, it protrays how capitalism would work without laws and regulations whatsoever, for example if child labor weren’t prohibited by law. This was the case in the 19th century Europe: it seems that Mizoguchi shows his view on unregulated capitalism’s deficiency by portraying a proto-capitalist executive in a premodern Japanese period (Heian), films it in 1953, an era characterized by a much more regulated capitalism, and fills it with revolutionary content. Mizoguchi had socialist tendencies in his early work and we can say that his later masterpeices, like Sansho exhibit those particular tendencies.

Zushiō’s sister sacrifices herself to help him escape and to conceal his whereabouts she drowns herself in the lake, in a particularly impressive long shot. The shady nature and the composition of shots reveal masterful delicacy and contemplative stillness; in this scene this is particularly vivid. Zushiō manages to escape and goes to the Buddhist temple protected by imperial power.


He wants to appeal to the emperor’s counselor and the priest tells him: I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don’t directly concern them. They’re ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot come true. If you wish to live honestly with your conscience, keep close to the Buddha.” He speaks of the cruelty of men guided by self-interest, but luck seemed to shine on Zushiō. The emperor’s counselor acknowledges his nobility and grants him the position of a governor of a province. Zushiō decides upon a revolutionary act; he will abolish slavery in the region. Yet, the problem is that some manors are private ownerships (another allusion to capitalism) and fall under the authority of the Minister of Law. In other words, they are not under the jurisdiction of the governor.

Zushiō succeeds to liberate the slaves and they look upon him with gratitude and are beyond belief. The house of Sansho is destroyed and the flames engulf it. In the moment of quick victory and the momentary achievement of his goals, Zushiō renounces his position as a governor and travels to the island of Sado to visit his mother who was enslaved as a prostitute. Mizoguchi’s own sister had to be sold to become a geisha due to the family’s serious financial problems. This seems to have affected Mizoguchi’s view on life profoundly.

Sado, an island where Zushiō’s mother was enslaved in the film, has an important place in the Japanese historical penal archipelago. At Sado, prisoners were sent to work at mines and many died in the process. This ocurred during the making of Japanese capitalism and Mizoguchi’s choice of Sado may be a reference to that. The main problem with the film’s ending is that it is in fact a story of vengeance of the enslaved on their former master; it may be easily inferred that Zushiō in fact accomplished nothing.

Another governer would in such a case assume a different position, most likely the one which does not have a revolutionary mentality, he would reestablish slavery on the orders of the Minister of Law and we would be back to square one. Heian period, in fact, was the one which was merciful in many aspects – it is the only period in the Japanese history when death penalty didn’t exist; in the Heian period, Japan became the first abolitionist nation in the world. Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff is without a doubt a masterpiece of Japanese cinema, notwithstanding its naive idealism.

Hrvoje Galić