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


Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962) “Bloody Code”

Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri belongs to the jidaigeki genre (period piece). It follows the period shortly after the battle at Sekigahara and the establishemnt of the Tokugawa shogunate (1630). The film begins with a short exposition by the official of House Iyi, who talks about the everyday life of the samurai warlord. It is a perspective of a person in power, whose status is in sharp contrast to the one of rōnin, a samurai without a lord. We see the samurai armor, which belonged to the one of the ancestors of House Iyi, surrounded by a fog similar to the one we can see in performances of Wagner’s operas. The armor represents tradition, the samurai code of honor, bushido. An impoverished rōnin comes to the House Iyi to ask for permission to commit seppuku in their courtyard. The house of his lord has fallen and he wants to end his life honourably.

He s told that acts of this kind have become widespread since one rōnin, after asking for a place to commit seppuku, became a retainer in one of the houses, causing the admiration of the samurai. The others followed him, with insincere intentions and got a few coins so the samurai could get rid of them. It is important to note, as Daniel Botsman writes, that the rōnin were the destabilizing element in the time of the shogunate’s rule and were often the source of public disturbances. Once, a group of rōnin tried to overthrow Bakufu. They were not just vagabonds and beggars who were imprisoned in the West during the time of “the Great Confinement”, as Michel Foucault understands it. The rōnin were trained warriors, a violent element dangerous to the established order.

Impoverished rōnin Motome Chijiwa comes to the doorstep of House Iyi without the intention to actually perform it. House Iyi decides to make a precedent so that dishonourable and extortionate practice stops. Motome’s wish is accepted, he is absolutely horrified, and the ritual of seppuku is arranged in the courtyard. He is forced to disembowel himself with a bamboo sword, since he did not have a steel sword. He stabs the sword in his stomach, manages to penetrate his skin and thrust the sword into his gut. His face shows horrific pain and his head is cut off by his second. Seppuku, which Motome is forced to perform, is the example of the functioning of sovereign power as Foucault understands it. It is the power that lets one live or exiles him into death, in other words, it is power over life.

The telos of the punishment is the prevention of similar acts. Foucault believed that power is productive, it makes things happen. In this case, the image of honor of House Iyi is strenghtened, as well as the projection of the image of horror toward others who could try the same thing Motome did. Daniel Botsman writes: “By far the best-known example of a status-specific punishment, however, is the notorious seppuku, or “suicide by disembowelment” for warrior men. In spite of its name and repuation, when practiced as an offical Tokugawa punishment, this was, in fact, little more than a ritualized form of beheading, involving neither genuine suicide nor actual disembowelment; once the condemned warrior had readied himself, he simply reached toward a symbolic wooden sword to signal the executioner to proceed.” Despite the tradition of the execution by decapitation, Motome is not only forced to disembowel himself, he has to do it with a bamboo sword. Wooden sword which served a symbolic function became an actual means to execute the punishment.


Motome’s father-in-law Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to the doorstep of House Iyi with the same request. In the palace courtyard he speaks to the gathered samurai about the fall of his lord’s house, as well as destitution of his family, almost in a Faulknerian manner. He speaks of son-in-law’s motives to come to House Iyi and his Motome’s son’s illness which put his life in danger. The film has a fractured narrative, with frequent retrospections and its fabric gradually gains a clearer shape as time progresses. Black and white photography is paired with brilliant use of lighting, of light and shadow. When they find out about Motome’s death, Hanshiro’s and Motome’s wife backs are illuminated, as in prayer, while they are surrounded by darkness. Appalled by the conduct of House Iyi, Hanshiro decides to ask for their remorse. Since he does not get it, the film draws to a close with an aestheticized revenge.




Vigorous line:

After all, this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a façade.


The main tension, or antagonism, is the one between honor as illusion (façade) which conceals socio-economic realities and honor as a legitimation discourse which sustains the order. It is not hard to draw a comparison between the ideology of the shogunate which produces an impression of its benevolence and all the “fine” layers of exclusion which function beneath. Bushido is, speaking in a Nietzschean manner, a ruse which serves the warrior elite to project “moral superiority” and secure their social status. Hanshiro is executed with guns, which foreshadows “the taming of the samurai” which happened in the Meiji era. “The Great Peace” of Tokugawa means that the age of the samurai as actual warriors is at its end and they adapt to the emerging modernity to secure their positions as the rulling elite. The Meiji revolution showed that it could not last indefinitely.

The main counselor of House Iyi orders the defeated samurai to perform seppuku and proclaims that those who died, died of illness. House Iyi gets praises and enfirms its status through lies (illusion): “The house of Iyi has no retainers who could be felled or wounded by some half-starved rōnin”. They tell the other houses that a rōnin performed seppuku in their courtyard, forgetting to tell the truth that the measures to include the excluded and desperate are nonexistent. In the same manner in which Hanshiro sees the samurai honor as a façade, the film ends with the reestablishment of illusion, a façade according to which all the historical and contemporary societies function. Harakiri shows a tragic era in which Hanshiro’s poetic remark that our lives are castles built on foundations of sand, and one strong wind tears them down, holds truth.


Daniel V. Botsman,  Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan, Princeton University Press, Oxford, 2005