Based on a Japanese short story of the same name, Sansho the Bailiff depicts a world of inexorable cruelty. 11th century Japan is an era when, as the opening credits describe it: “mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.” Aside from a few wealthy landowners, people are treated like chattel, to be worked and disposed of at the whim of those in power.

As children, Zushiô (Masahiko Kato) and Anju (Keiko Enami) had a pretty nice life. Their father Masauji (Masao Shimizu) was a well-regarded Governor, loved by peasants for his compassionate ways. However, when he opposes a government edict—fearing his people would starve—he is removed from his post, forced into exile and separated from his family. As the story resumes years later, Masauji’s wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) is attempting to reunite her nearly adult children (played by Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa) with their father. Tamaki has always told them what a great man he is and they can’t wait to meet him.

Sansho the BailiffOn their way to the island where he lives, they meet a priestess (Kikue Mori) who suggests that they use the services of two boatmen, who are supposedly the best in the area. The family takes the advice, but the boatmen turn out to be bandits.  Tamaki is sold to the owner of a brothel, while Zushiô and Anju are sold to Sansho (Eitarô Shindô) the brutal owner of a slave camp. Living under the iron hand of Sansho’s rule is a truly miserable existence, which makes him much more popular with the big bosses than Masauji ever was. Suffering from exhaustion, dehydration and malnutrition, slaves collapse and die on an almost daily basis.

Over the next decade, Anju works hard and keeps out of trouble. Zushiô, however, becomes very strong and works to please his bosses by doing some of the dirtiest jobs in the village, including carrying out punishment on other slaves to gain favor with Sansho. Eventually stirred by a childhood memory, Zushiô is forced to question the brutal man he has become.

Mizoguchi’s trademarks—high angles, long panning shots and framing his characters in wider landscape—makes Sansho the Bailiff compelling to watch. Even in the cruelest scenes, Mizoguchi opts for a display of dignity over hysterics, which makes them all the more powerful. For example, a blanket of white mist rises between Tamaki and her children when they are betrayed by the boatmen and as Anju descends into the river, the camera stays focused on the ripples of water. Mizoguchi’s message seems to be that this kind of suffering is part of life and often leads to a fuller life in the end.

Both haunting and beautiful, Sansho the Bailiff features strong performances from all the actors involved. However, Yosiaki Hanayagi shines as the son who rises to great power, but then must re-evaluate his actions and beliefs when flooded by memories of family. No matter how much brutality he gives or receives, in the end, for Zushiô, family remained at the center of his consciousness.

Reproduced in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer is fairly solid. While the black and white picture would have benefited from a bit more contrast, the image is still pretty sharp. While the blacks aren’t the deepest, they do an ample job given the material. Aside from a couple of instances of dirt (blink and you’ll miss them) artifacts aren’t an issue. The white English subtitles are easy to read.

The PCM 1.0 sound mix is more than serviceable, but it’s not among Criterion’s best. There’s a slight flutter throughout, as well as a minor hiss heard during the tracks quieter moments. Aside from that, the sound is a bit high-pitched on occasion. Crackle has largely been dealt with, but it can be heard (albeit briefly) on a couple of occasions.

English subtitles are included.

The following special features are available:

  • Audio Commentary with Jeffrey Angles: This is the same commentary that appeared on Criterion’s 2007 DVD release of Sansho the Bailiff. Japanese literature scholar Jeffrey Angles discusses Ogai Mori’s story which the film is based on, Kenji Mizoguchi’s style, the themes and relationships in Sansho the Bailiff, etc.
  • Performance (SD, 10:20) In this 2007 interview, legendary actress Kyoko Kagawa discusses working with Mizoguchi and her character in Sansho the Bailiff.
  • Production (SD, 15:01) Recorded in 2007, this interview with assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka provides an interesting and informative overview of Mizoguchi’s techniques.
  • Simplicity (SD, 23:52) Recorded in 2007, film critic and historian Tadao Sato discusses some of themes present in Mizoguchi’s work and its technical excellence.
  • Booklet: The nearly 80-page booklet offers an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu and two versions of the story on which the film is based: Ogai Mori’s 1915 “Sansho the Steward” and an earlier oral variation in written form.