Sansho the Bailiff (Review)

Sansho Daiyu (1954)
Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi
120 minutes


The film is about medieval tale involving a kind and moral governor that is sent into exile. His wife, and two children experience various tribulations in their attempt to reunite with their father.

On the eve of his exile, the governor tells his son to “be hard himself, but merciful to others.” He makes the son repeat this. He also tells his son that all people are equal; peasants also have a right to be happy. It’s this attitude and approach that gets the governor and his family in trouble. Usually, if a film has these elements, I’m going to like it and this was no exception. The black-and-white film, plus other elements make the film look a bit old, but I think this film would appeal to many idiots here.


So what did I like about this? Well, I just found the film very moving. The boy goes through a very hard life and almost forgets the main lesson taught to him by his father. I loved the tragedy of the situation and the sacrifice and perserverance the characters go through. A theme that resonates strongly with me is the idea of doing right even though it requires sacrificing your well-being. That’s partly what this film is about.

The other part of the film that struck me was the depiction of the slave labor in the film. I recently watched the film about Wal-Mart, and I felt this sense that no matter what time period we live in, poor laborers will always be exploited. Sansho Daiyu, the person running the slave camps, is really no different than an employer overseeing sweatshops.

If Chushingura serves as the model for the ideal Japanese male, than The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (7/10) serves as the model for the ideal Japanese female. “Chrysanthemums” is another film by Mizoguchi (made in 1939). I enjoyed this film, too, but not as much as I liked “Sansho.” This story is about son of a famous actor. He is not very good, but gets by because of his father’s name (family names in Japanese theater groups are supposedly essential for success). The son eventually powerful affections for the wet nurse of the family because she is completely honest with him and yet, desires to help him succeed as an actor. Thus, the story begins about the son’s attempt to make it as an actor. The film is accessible and moving, and I think many of you will agree with the 7 scoring.


Seeing the son, Kikunosuke, start from the bottom and work his way to the top is a compelling, but, clearly, Otoku–the wet-nurse–that supports and loves him is the hero of the film. While she is an inspiring figure (in the mold of Oshin, for those of you familiar with that popular TV series in Japan), I have mixed feelings about the message of the film. Otoku is always in the background of the man and does everything to help him succeed. Even when he wrongfully gets angry and hits her, she takes the blame for this. Her life is literally given for his career. I see this as quintessentially Japanese, but also a bit troubling, too. Her character is noble, but I feel for the woman who feel trapped and bitter because they are expected to conform to this model.

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