While many of the more praiseworthy movies from Japan’s period dramas (or Jidaigeki, as they are called) manufactured in the ’50s have been well-known staples to any foreign film snob since the advent of digital media, there is one title in particular that didn’t see the light of day with English speaking folk until The Criterion Collection unleashed it in 2007. Though known by its original Japanese-language moniker in most of the world, Sanshô Dayû is usually referred to as Sansho the Bailiff in the United States. Re-released by Criterion once more, Sansho is now available on Blu-ray for you really serious foreign film snobs.
The tale here is based on a story by writer Ogai Mori, which in-turn had been passed down orally from generation to generation. In fact, it may be older than the invention of dirt itself, though I’m awaiting further confirmation on that. Originally slated to depict the life of the anything-but-friendly titular character — a ruthless slave owner who is a favorite of the local (greedy) government due to his numerous tributes, and who is depicted in the film by actor Eitarô Shindô — director Kenji Mizoguchi decided to change the story instead by bringing us the anything-but-happy story of two children who are torn away from their parents. Their father — a well-loved bailiff — when he is banished to a far-off region due to his respect for those pesky peasants. Kidnappers separate them from their mum, who is then sold to prostitution elsewhere. Finally, the kids themselves are sold to Sansho as slaves.
And that’s just the beginning of the feature, people.
As time passes by, siblings Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) grow up to be perfectly fit slaves – still serving Sansho the Bailiff faithfully. Zushio, the male of the siblings, seems to have completely forgotten to uphold his father’s final words to him: “Without mercy, a man is not a human being. Be hard on yourself but merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to happiness.” And then, one day, a new and young slave sings a song she learned growing up — a tune that mentions the long-lost siblings: which breaks Anju of her role as a subservient woman and she finally succeeds in jogging the memory of her brother, who is now perfectly content with branding his fellow slaves’ faces as his master orders.
Finally realizing his real role in this cruel joke of an existence the gods have tossed his way in life, Zushio decides it’s time to break away from his sadistic handler and — hopefully — reunite his family. And that’s really all I can say on the matter since the movie never really gets any brighter in tone than that — despite the obstacles our antihero overcomes, which have hefty price tags attached to them in the end.
Or, to put it in other, simpler words: this is your typical happy Japanese tale of lives affected by really bad, bad people during a very dark, dark time. Enjoy!
The Criterion Collection’s 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer brings us this Japanese classic in its original 1.34:1 aspect ratio. Sourced from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, an extensive cleaning-up process was performed on this one — removing many an unpleasant sight. That said, there are still instances of imperfection noticeable here and there, though the restoration procedure has given us a very beautiful presentation overall — and black levels and contrast are quite lovely-looking throughout. Accompanying the main feature is a Japanese LPCM 1.0 soundtrack, which has a fair bit of hissing, but is nevertheless very clear and precise. The included English subtitles provided by Criterion for us non-Japanese-speaking individuals are removable.
Special features for this one have been ported over from the 2007 DVD release, and consists of an audio commentary by Japanese literature scholar Jeffrey Angles, two interviews (one with actress Kyôko Kagawa, the other with assistant director Tokuzô Tanaka), and a featurette about the film with historian Tadao Sato. Finally, there’s a nice big booklet included, which — in addition to an essay on the flick by scholar Mark Le Fanu — also houses two written adaptations of the original tale that inspired the film in question.
And they’re both happy accounts, as well — just in case you were wondering.