Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff (aka Sansho Dayu) is one of the many acknowledged masterpieces that Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi made late in his career. I was at the film forum this Saturday to catch a screening. I realized once again how important it is to watch movies on big screen, sitting alone in the dark. Also the print was new and sparkling which added to the visual lustre of the film. I sometimes wonder how my experience of watching B/W movies has changed over a period of time. I now prefer B/W movies more than the colour ones and not because I need a history lesson or something but because I find them more interesting in visual and aesthetic terms. I remember watching The Third Man many years ago, it was one of the first films I saw on the new medium of DVD, and was astonished at the visual clarity and sharpness of its images and how evocative the B/W atmosphere was. I had never expected such an experience from a fifty year old B/W movie.

Anyway coming back to Sansho, the film tells the story of a family of a humane provincial Governor in medieval Japan who is forced to go to exile because he refuses to follow his superior's orders to collect taxes from poor peasants. His family (wife, son and daughter) soon fall prey to the cruelties of the feudal system and the vagaries of fate. The kids end up as slave labour in a slave camp operated by the tyrannical titular bailiff and mother gets sold into a brothel. This all sounds melodramatic and an ordinary director would certainly have made it exploitative but Mizoguchi's style is very different. First he follows "one scene one cut" aesthetic and even when he uses cuts it is to distance the viewer from the apparent action. As a result he manages to postpone an immediate emotional reaction and allows all ends of narrative to come together and also to provoke the viewer into a deeper reflection about the characters and their situations.

Also since it is based on a folk tale (just like Ugetsu) the narrative on its own is very schematic and a trifle implausible at many places. For example years after the two kids are separated from their mother, they get to learn about the well being of their mother from a song that her mother sings, a song expressing her longing to see her children and lamenting the cruelties of life, which has become so popular that anyone arriving from that island sings it. In an ordinary film this wouldn't have worked but it works here because Mizoguchi devotes a lot of his attention to creating a very realistic mise-en-scene and in giving emotional depth to his characters. A straight-forward retelling of the folk-tale would certainly have failed because of the lack of contextual information.

This film reminded me of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy in a number of ways. It was strange because it's been almost more than four years since I last saw those films. First in the way Mizoguchi shoots landscapes. Those landscapes are not just used to give contextual information to the narrative but they actually serve a deeper thematic purpose. Do they show the harmony that exists between man and nature and hint at the oneness of everything or is it meant to show the indifference of the universe to all kinds human suffering, the world carries on as usual while human beings experience life altering events? I think it is both, though I suspect Mizoguchi's vision is a little darker in the sense he veers more towards the latter. Also the final scene when the mother finally gets to see her long lost son reminded me of my similar emotional reaction to Aparajito (basically prepare yourself for a broken heart!).

Some links: Jim Emerson has a nice write-up on the film on Rogerebert.com. This is another article from the reverse
shot blog.
Also this short review from BBC films website. Also, I had linked to more articles about Mizoguchi in my previous post on Ugetsu.


neha vish said...

I have come to like BW movies because each frame feels like a work of art, because of the need to balance all the black, white and gray. In colour, while balancing is equally difficult - you can get away with a bad frame. Perhaps because its more crowded.

BW movies because of the constraints use sparse frames. There is ample use of space, but without emptiness. But it's hard to appreciate BW on a small screen, because I guess they were never meant to be seen on anything but a large one ..

Alok said...

Yes, you have put it very nicely.

Also in a black and white image, stylization and abstraction are easier to achieve, you can do it just by tinkering with the lighting and light sources and it is more effective and evocative that way.