Tamaki is the resourceful mother of two children, Zushio and Anju. Together with her husband, a venerated governor and all-around people’s hero, they reside in medieval Japan’s Tango province. Tamaki has gently set a mother’s plea aloft in the unscoured halls of the two nascent souls in her ward. Equanimity and mercy, goes its verse. When his policies are deemed too forgiving, it’s the same song that pits Zushio’s father against his feudal lord. Status and power prove the lord victorious in the squabble, so he banishes the humanitarian from his land and post. Tamaki, tracing the now swept away footsteps of her husband, shuttles her kids through neighboring villages and inhospitable terrain, finally arriving at a watery impasse. Instead of rowing them across, the channel’s chaperones wrench the feeble party apart, selling Tamaki into courtesanship and her two kids to local mogul and slavemonger, Sansho the Bailiff. Zushio wakes up twenty years later and, provoked by his sister, charts a harrowing course in search of his mother.
In carving its path through the default nothing of space-time-sensation, Sansho the Bailiff adheres to one of those classic narrative strokes; it’s a graceful if recognizable trajectory – like a baseball, soaring home from the outfield, reigned in by gravity’s leash. A markedly uncomplicated value system serves as the film’s anchor. That is, Zushio’s burgeoning heroism is rooted in an unqualified return to the instructional moments of his childhood. The result of this homecoming is a predictable motivator, pummeling the hero from his stasis. Suspended in the unmerciful solution of the diegesis, and taken up by Anju in his darkest hour, Zushio’s quest for equanimity is a perpetuating agent of almost chemical formulation. A narrator clues us in, in the opening scenes, that Sansho is a story handed down from before the awakening of man. But that story of awakening is more than decorative, it’s fundamental. Zushio’s somnambulant arrival at new states of awareness, both of himself and the people around him, is hastily christened by the narrative’s cascade of new names and honorifics. Despite its perhaps unsavory encoding into human specifics, Sansho the Bailiff is certainly a parade of pristine symbols and gargantuan undertakings.
- Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi 1954) @ BAM/PFA #JapaneseDivas