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


The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) “Did You Ever Go Clear?”

HPaul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is one of his underrated movies, which is completely unjustified. It is the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix’s career; his portrayal of an aggressive, erratic yet extremely complex character will leave an indellible mark in the history of film. The Master is a heaven for psychoanalysts, if there are any of them left (e.g. Slavoj Žižek). It follows a war veteran with mental issues, Freddie Quell, who succumbs to the will of a charismatic and narcissistic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. We can tell that he is a narcissist not only by observing his erratic, but controlled behaviour. The subtitle of his second book, as it is shown in one frame, is “As a gift to homo sapiens”. This may inspire one to recall, (or imagine to be more correct) Friedrich Nietzsche’s stance about his own importance to the mankind; when was half-mad toward the end of his sane life he signed himself as “Christ” and “Dyonisus”. The film obviously explores the emergence of cults and their attraction to men who lack direction and purpose in life. A famous Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen writes to his friend in his beautiful song Famous Blue Raincoat:

Did you ever go clear?

“Going clear” is a direct reference to the practices of scientology, meaning that one should be free from past traumas and uncontrolled desires. Lancaster Dodd is an amateur psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing hypnosis and the so-called processing. The rituals that Lancaster imposes on his followers have a double nature: they are both an initation into the cult and the means of controlling the followers. By the promise of eliminating instincts, aggressive impulses and traumas he offers salvation, but that very “salvation” results in slavery. His methods have a counter-effect, thy produce a being that is more irrational and obsessed with power than before.


Later in the film, he tries to help Freddie by controlling his anger and agressiveness, but we can see that he did not (completely) succeed. What’s more interesting than the above mentioned notions, along with the exploration of the psychological state of war veterans in the post WW2 environment, is the father-son relationship between Lancaster and Freddie. This seems to be an important theme for Anderson, since it is explored in There Will Be Blood,  as well. There Will Be Blood and The Master seem to form a strange diptych; Daniel Planview is reincarnated in both Freddie and Lancaster with overtones of ravaging pleonaxic desires and Lancaster reincarnates Eli, a charismatic priest with a similar lust for power.

Although they are often in a conflict, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be stuck in an unusual  relationship, that of a mentor and a follower, but also a very intimate one. The father-son relationship as presented in the film is a constant battleground of testostorones and urges in which the dominated strives for domination. It is not a relationship based on mutual trust and respect but a power relation in which there an be no winner, but in death. P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights was deeply influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas; The Master seems to be as well. The life of a group which has family structure seems to be Anderson’s constant preoccupation.


Vigorous line:

Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas… If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first in the history of the world.

Lancaster Dodd

Sea Waves

It is interesting that Dodd mentions the term “master” since he is one throghout the movie. This line can be interpreted in terms of the famous Hegelian master-slave dialectic. According to the professor Eric Steinhart the Hegelian master-slave dialectic occurs when two self-consciousnesses confront each other. It is doubtful if we can call Freddie “self-conciouss” at all, at least during the first half of the film. He is already a slave, to his desires and to Lancaster Dodd. Later, he gains self-consciousness and the battle may begin.

They decide not to fight, although they do fight earlier in the film and Lancaster implies that they will be mortal enemies in their next lives. For Hegel, this would be barbaric, the two sides need to learn how to cooperate, not to fight an endless struggle into eternity (logically). Lancaster “lets” Freddie live his own life as he pleases, he is “off the hook”; it is an open ending. Freddie decides to live as a free man, but, does he serve any master? Or the master should be himself, exercising power over himself. This may be the message of The Master, one should learn to control oneself, by oneself – alone.

Hrvoje Galić