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.

sansho-the-bailiff

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

 

A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009) “The Comedy of Job”


What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls to tears.

Seneca, To Marcia On Consolation

The veracity of Seneca’s words can be debated upon, but they seem to fit to describe the Coen brothers character Larry’s fortune in the film. Yet, A Serious Man is a comedy. We laugh as Larry goes from a bad situation to a worse one. Coen brothers stated: “The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry.” It seems that the directors were on a ‘sadistic streak’ involving their character, but to what purpose, one may ask. Aside from their iconic black humor, Coen brothers’ films are an inquiry into human condition, either in the specific historical situation, as in Hail Caesar! or the eternal questions of human existence, like in No Country for Old Men. A Serious Man falls in the latter category; it is a film which deals with the mundane and the man’s relationship to divinity and fate (or fortune, one may say). In this film, Judaism is more present than in any other Coen brothers’ piece of work.

The film opens with a folk story in which a man comes to the house where a man and a wife live, and the wife claims that the man died a few years ago and he is a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit. She stabs him in the chest with a knife, and shortly after, he starts bleeding. Whether he is a dybbuk or not, we do not know. The Coen brothers stated that this scene does not mean much, that it just sets the tone for the film. The scene sets the tone in terms of atmosphere, but also thematically. The man who lives in the house says that he is a “rational person” and does not believe that man is a dybbuk, while his wife behavior may be termed as superstitious, although her vocabulary has religious overtones. The relationship between rationality and the irrational forces in life seems to be an important element in the film. The other imporant motif is that the folk story’s ending opens up two possibilites and we cannot be certain which one is true.

This kind of reasoning is crucial for the understanding of the film, since there is an uncertainty which permeates the film’s main character Larry. He comes home from work to his family, (he works as a physics professor at the university) and we can hear peaceful music, he watches his neighbour mowing the lawn and the setting of a typical American family is portrayed. The illusion of a perfect life is instantly crushed since his wife condescendigly tells him that she has someone else and wants a divorce. She tells him that she wants a ritual divorce, so she can marry another man and that he should “act like an adult” about it. His wife’s lover Sy patronizingly hugs him and tells him everything will be all right; Larry is forced to move to the cheap motel nearby. Forced may be a strong adjective to use, it would be more accurate to say that he complies with it.

He comes to see three Rabbis and engages with three lawyers; the rabbis represent the spiritual sphere and the lawyers the civic one. The first Rabbi is young and seems like a rather ignorant example of an ecstatic mystic. He tells him that he should change his perception and see God in things, in the parking lot for example. The second Rabbi tells him a rather long story about a dentist who found inscriptions in Yiddish on a patient’s teeth and asked for an explanation for it, the way to understand it as a sign from God. The conclusion of the second Rabbi is that one should be a good man and says that God “doesn’t owe us an answer. He doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” Larry’s confusion about the “first principles” that should guide his life’s path is equivalent to his lack of trust in everything that surrounds him.

His son gets involved in a  Columbia record scam, and his real-estate lawyer dies of heart attack when he needs to give legal advice about Larry’s home. The first lawyer Larry goes to becomes a sort of analyst who listens to his problems. The third lawyer sends him a bill for 3000$. Sy dies and Larry “has” to pay for his funeral. In short, Larry’s life gets worse and worse as “Uncle Arthur” gets involved with the police over gambling. His nightmares mirror his state of mind as he sees himself having sex with his married neighbour and Sy harassing him, practically putting a coffin on him. He dreams of himself writing formulas on the huge board and says: “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.”

In the multiplicity of life’s misfortunes, he loses his sense of self and the way to encounter life with Lebowskian Taoist simplicity. This is simply not an option for him. The only moment when he relaxes is when he smokes marijuana with his neighbour but God (or Coen brothers in this case – it is sometimes hard to discern the two when this film is in question) does not leave the act unpunished. In the end, after he realizes that he can keep his job, although Sy was sending letters stating Larry is immoral to the university, the doctor calls him and implies that he has lung cancer.

 

The title card at the beginning of the film says: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” – Rashi. This may be an advice from Coens to their character: to stop searching for answers in the moments of misery, to reduce the complexity of chaotic life circumstences to an attitude of simplicity and renounce the need to establish divine order of things in a world, which is in itself chaotic. One should receive their misfortunes with a simplicity, like the character from a Wong Kar-wai film who compares the end of romantic relationship to the changing color of one’s hair. Or, it can be a rather cruel joke from Coens, since tortured Larry doesn’t seem to find the answer in a simple change of perception, in line with the advice from the first, young Rabbi.

 

Vigorous lines:

I haven’t done anything… 

Larry

Doing nothing is not bad. Ipso facto.

Professor at the University

 

The conversation in the context of Larry’s tenure on the university seems to be a key to understanding Larry’s character and his actions. In one way, he can be compared to the Old Testament figure of Job, who is tested by God by being afflicted various misfortunes, which makes Job lose his faith. On the other hand, he is not like Job, whose family is killed, who is assailed by deseases and ends up in the belly of a whale. Job simply cannot answer this misfortunes with actions, they are of such gravity that only passive acceptance is the way of dealing with them. Larry, on other hand, could rise up to his misfortunes and stand up for himself. He does not. His character in some ways echoes the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, who lie in the pool dressed in black and do nothing for days. In other words, in A Serious Man a Coen brothers’ vindication of passive nihilism is vivid.

The scale of Larry’s compliance to the actions of others which bring him misfortunes is admirable. He does next to nothing when confronted with the agents of his misfortunes. The philosophical or religious doctrines that preach detachment from the world, passive stance, renunciation of passions and desire, as Emil Cioran’s thought or Buddhism do, may be admirable worldviews. Yet, even Buddha had to distance himself from the position of a prince to start teaching and practicing his ideas. If one is entangled in numerous social obligations, the stance of passivity may very well be one’s downfall. Larry may had been born under an unlucky star, as the Ancients would understand it, but the degree of his suffering could have been different if he took a different stance. Nevertheless, as we learn  that Larry has cancer, his fate seems to be more similar to that of Job. The engineers of his doom are, on the other hand, Coens themselves.

 

References:


Seneca, Moral Essays Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, London, 1990

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984) “Purity of Earth”

From the very first scene of Nausicaä we can see that we are in a place of magical beauty. The trees, a windmill and the surroundings are coated in what looks like a spider-web or frozen snow; the flakes are falling around a man riding strange creatures, wearing a mask, looking bird-like. The man breaks down the door, the focus is on the skulls of unknown entities; he picks up a doll which disintegrates in his hand. He says: “Another village destroyed”, and the scene is cut to the image of blue, monstrous flying bugs.

The man concludes: “Let’s go, soon, this will also be consumed in the Sea of Decay”. Two minutes of the film have just passed and we already know a lot about the world we are witnessing, yet we wonder. We are sure that this is not the Earth as we know it, yet it similar to it, just distorted to the point of unresembling beauty. We find out that the Sea of Decay is consuming village after village, but we can only guess what it is. This opening of the film is powerful, gives us some information to ponder upon and wonder about and brings us into the world of decay, but also of stunning beauty.

Soon, we are informed in a caption that: “1,000 years after the collapse of industrial civilization, the Sea of Decay, a swamp exuding toxic vapors, covered an earth strewn with rusting ruins, threatening human survival”. One of the images shown, after we are informed that the legendary Hayao Miyazaki wrote the screenplay and directed the film, presents a giant creature painted in flamboyant colors consuming a town. It is painted in the manner of a child, yet it is impressive. The Giant Warriors are shown with great rods in hands, surrrounded by fire, cities are in ruin. Thus, with the first reference to the element of Fire, we learn how the civilization came to an end. Bearing in mind the Japanese experience in WW2, one cannot escape the notion that this is an allusion to nuclear weapons, in a similar way Godzilla is.

We see a girl with angel’s wings, and cold colors dominating the movie are anticipated. The beginning is highly contrasted with the scene in which Nausicaä flies on a glider and the blue of the sky and sea prevails. This is again contrasted in the next image of a skull of a giant, which symbolizes death contrasted to Nausicaä’s serenity. She is the princess of the Valley of the Wind and has a “mysterious power” (in words of Lord Yupa) to calm and influence giant bugs, Ohms, to return to their forest and cease to be aggressive. The following verses from William Blake’s poem To the Muses can be used to describe Nausicaä:

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,

  Or the green corners of the Earth,

Or the blue regions of the air

  Where the melodious winds have birth

She is cheerful, kind and is embracing all the creatures that surround her (a fox-squirell for example); she is respected and adored by her people. In her father’s room there is the armor of a samurai with spears next to it and this reference to tradition cannot be overlooked. The oracle tells of a person “clothed in blue robes descending onto the golden field to join bonds with the great earth.” Now, the element of Earth is introduced and contrasted to the element of Fire. Later in the film, the oracle says that the creatures (Ohms) “reflect the anger of the earth”.

All the four elements that were important for Japanese mythology, Fire, Earth, Water and Air (i.e. wind) are present in the film. Their prominence was introduced to Japan via Buddhism and Indian vastu shastra philosophy. The oracle says that the ocean wind protects the people of the Valley; thus, Wind is represented as an element that enriches and preserves, along with Water. Fire represented the things that destroy, just as it does in the film.

Fire

Nausicaä finishes the oracle’s prediction with following words: “and guide the people to the pure land, at last”. “Pure Land Buddhism”, advocated the belief in the transcendent pure land which is impossible to reach in this world, since the world is necessarily corrupt. Thus, the myth is complete, a person will come to unite the bonds of men with the earth, but also bring them to the land of purity; in one word, he or she will end the corruption of men. Considering the ending, Nausicaä is an optimistic film. Although decay and death are prominent, there is a clear possibility of ending the corruption once and for all.

The idyllic setting is abruptly ended with the scene in which a Tolmekian ship comes and crashes into the cliff. The scene is consumed in blackness (the fifth element, the Void seems to make an appearance) and fire in which the Tolmekian ship burns. Nausicaä offers comfort to the dying Tolmekian princess and consoles her by saying that her cargo is in flames. In this scene, fire is a productive, positive element. It destroyed that which destroys. Valley of the Wind is attacked by the Tolmekians and the king is murdered in his bed. Thus, we see the symbolic fall of the Valley personified in the act of physical destruction of the king, the symbol and holder of sovereignty.

The people of the Valley of  the Wind enjoyed their tranquility and freedom due to their geographical position and belevolent rule. The Valley can be compared to Venice, serenissima (the most serene). The republic of Venice existed for a millenium, (just like the Valley), mostly due to its favorable geographical position and good fortune (Machiavelli), until Napoleon conquered it. Political philosopher Brian Barry writes that it was not uncommon in the history of humanity for the more advanced civilizations to be conquered by the less civilized warlike nations.

We learn that the Giant Warrior, whose kind once destroyed civilization, is kept by the Tolmekians. They aim to destroy the toxic jungle (i.e. the Sea of Decay) which consumes what’s left of civilization. The Giant Warrior is a weapon of mass destruction, and both Tolmekians and Pejites are aiming to possess it. They are engaged in an open warfare and throughout the film Nausicaä serves as a mediator between the forces, trying to convince them not to use the Giant Warrior. The Tolmekians and Pejites personify realpolitik, pragmatic approach to international relations which equates power with military force and might and gives prime importance to the interest of the state, which is  self-preservation in the first place. Both nations believe that getting hold of weapons of mass destruction (i.e. the Giant Warrior) is the only means to achieve security, both against other nations and the threat that the Sea of Decay poses.

 

Vigorous lines:

Every one of us relies on water from the wells, because mankind has polluted all the lakes and rivers. But do you know why the well water is pure? It’s because the trees of the wasteland purify it! And you plan to burn the trees down? You must not burn down the toxic jungle!

Nausicaä

Water - purity

Nausicaä finds this out when she falls through quicksand into a place where everything is pure and unpolluted. She says: “The trees of the Sea of Decay grew to cleanse a world polluted by humans. They absorb toxins from the earth, generate pure crystals, die and turn to sand”. She realizes that the Sea of Decay is a self-sustained ecosystem which purifies the water humans can use. Since humans polluted all the water, that is their only chance of survival. Ohms protect the trees and are living in unison with nature. An imbalance in the ecosystem, or even worse, its destruction, would destroy both the nature and human civilization. They live in mutual dependence and humans are not aware of it.

When Nausicaä falls through sand, she uncovers the world as it is beneath appearance. Other humans value only what they perceive, without inquiring into the nature of things; they are prone to solutions they envisage only by observing the surface, not the effective truth of things (veritá effetuale della cosa), in Machiavelli’s words. For him, we should not follow our imagination, but act in accordance with the world as it is. For Tolmekians and Pejites, the truth is obvious – there is a threat and it needs to be destroyed. For them “effective truth of the things” is to gain power to prevail and survive. Today, mankind is living in a world in which security threats are manifold, and policy can no longer be thought out in terms of amassment of power (economic or military power), regardless of threats to security which are created through our neglect of the environment.

Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) “Fight for the Cursed World”

In 1995 Hayao Miyazaki took a group of artists and animators to the ancient forests of Yakushima, which inspired the landscapes in the film. At the beginning, the narrator says:

“In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts… who owed their allegiance to the Great Forest Spirit, for those were the days of gods and demons.”

Miyazaki’s vision of the “days of gods and demons” seems to be inspired by the ancient Japanese religion, still practiced today, Shintoism. Kami are the spirits that are worshipped; they are not separated from nature, but are of nature. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the life of prehistoric man, a savage lives in accordance with nature and in peace with animals. He states: “no animal naturally makes war upon man, except in case of self-defence or extreme hunger, nor expresses against him any of these violent anthipathies.” He also writes: “Nature speaks to all animals, and beasts obey her voice.” On the other hand, in Princess Mononoke man and beast wage war against each other.

It is a tale of corruption, of both beast and man. The corruption of man can be found in two different shapes. The enemy of both “industrial man” and beasts are the Samurai (Miyazaki seems to follow the tradition of great Japanese directors Masaki Kobayashi, Kikachi Okamoto and other New Wave directors in this matter); the enemy of beasts are men who possess iron. The Samurai are corrupt since they follow the authoritharian form of government in which some are oppressed and others rule, while the “industrial man” is corrupt because he uses technology, namely, iron, to subdue nature and others. Rousseau also writes: “It is a very difficult matter to tell how men came to know anything of iron and the art of employing it… mines are formed nowhere but in dry and barren places… so that it looks as if nature had taken pains to keep from us so mischiveous a secret.”

Rousseau sees the discovery of iron and agriculture as a great step toward man’s tyranny over himself, other men and nature itself. It is no coincidence that in Miyazaki’s animated movie man possesses iron which destroys animals and turns them into demons. Prince Ashitaka is touched by the demon and becomes cursed himself; his hand wants to murder Lady Eboshi, while his mind remains uncorrupted. He serves as a mediator between the Beasts and “industrial men”, while he makes no fine moral judgments regarding the Samurai, the relics of the Japanese past.

The Great Wave at Kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave of Kanagawa 1830-1832

In Princess Mononoke the nature is abused and it hits back, turns against man. The Beasts wage war against man, while their sovereign, Forest Spirit guards over them. This can be seen as a parable directed against contemporary man’s behaviour toward nature. His machines destroy it and nature “fights back” in the form of hurricanes and earthquakes. In the last few decades, the number of hurricanes in the world has tripled, and indicators show that this happens as a consequence of man’s actions.

Thus, Princess Mononoke is an environmentalist film, but its scope is even greater. The corruption of man is demonstrated by numerous examples; his lust for power is endless and he will stop at nothing to achieve that goal. It is symptomatic that the Emperor wants Forest God’s head to achieve immortality. The moral is that he will not get immortality, but he will only engineer his own destruction. The film ends with Lady Eboshi advocating  a return to the traditional form of life and states that she will build a village and live in accordance with Nature. This is fairly optimistic, it is a fantasy of reunion with our own essence.

Note: This lullaby perfectly captures the feelings princess Mononoke experiences throughout the film.
Vigorous line:

Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed. But still, you find reasons to keep living.

Osa

buddha-199462_960_720

The aforementioned line reminds one of the works of Arthur Schopenhauer. He was well-versed in Indian philosophy and compared his philosophy to Buddhism. Schopenhauer’s anthropological and metaphysical pessimism emphasizes that to live means to suffer. Prince Ashitaka, although aware that he is cursed and is about to die, has the will to continue striving and fighting for what is good and just; he is a heroic figure. Princess Mononoke often calls him human; in other words enemy, yet he chooses not to take sides and strike whenever it is needed against those who bring chaos and disorder. Living in this world may entail suffering, Osa implies, but the moral of Princess Mononoke is the necessity to find the will to continue fighting. When all hope fades, those who can bring change by a heroic act or seemingly small acts ( e.g. of compassion), are the people who, against all odds, bring order and harmony into the world.

Hrvoje Galić