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A Close Reading of


Kenji Mizoguchi (1954, Japan)

Written by

J-SON 31 March 2011

About the Filmmaker

Kenji Mizoguchi (16 May 1898 – 04 August 1956) is a prominent old master of Japanese cinema amidst other great names such as Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. He may not be well-known to many as compared to his peers, Mizoguchi is however the only filmmaker whose films have won three consecutive Silver Lions at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, 1953, and 1954 (Mark Le Fanu, The Criterion Collection). Born in an unfortunate family where his parents held his sister up for adoption in order to cope with domestic finances, it is no wonder why Mizoguchi has been ever since so heavily influenced by themes revolving traditional social class policy, female roles in the conservative society, as well as humanity (David Williams, The Center for Studies in American Culture). It can probably be said that “Sansho the Bailiff� is highly in reminiscence of his own life experience and thus made it felt like a very personal project to Mizoguchi and also a cinematic masterpiece that is worthy of scholarly study and analysis.

About the film

“Sansho The Bailiff” is a bitter tale of how a family attempts to negotiate a world of cruelty and brutality that seems to be totally void of humanity. The film opens with a prologue with a text phrase as follows: “This story is set during the late Heian period, an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings”. It is a painful experience to watch this film without much deliberate relief as we see the family constantly being punished and ill treated without any just or morality. Mizoguchi does not provide any resolution or much triumph over evil, which might reflect how he intended this film to be – a bleak world that nobody desires to reside in. We can see how Mizoguchi relates his life story to this film, where certain similarities are drawn across the film and his past. Anju is an icon of his sister who was placed for adoption and the vicious Sansho is likely to be a character that follows his abusive father. Through heightened drama and dynamic audio and visual treatment, it allows the audience to feel more connected to the story and its characters. In particularly, the music (or a song to be exact) contains emotional traits of the characters as well as certain plot elements. Besides the song motif, there is also a verbal motif (a teaching passed on to Zushio from his father): “A man is not a human being without mercy. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others” It is perhaps an irony that the teaching of Zushio’s father seems to be ridiculously idealistic in contrast to the cold world depicted in this film. However, it is also what allowed the family to persevere and insist on striving for a better fate throughout the years. Especially Anju in my opinion, she never ceased to believe in hope. Upon viewing the film “Sansho The Bailiff”, I’ve selected two key scenes for close reading and in-depth analysis. They are the scene of Anju performing a self-sacrificial suicide by drowning herself in a lake, and the final scene when Zushio and his long-lost mother reunite in a tsunami-hit island.

Key Scenes Anju’s Self-Sacrifice

( As Anju turns to bide the world farewell, she cautiously but steadily steps into the lake without ever looking back with second thoughts. A young lady of her age should be curious about many things in life, yet they are foregone and instead self-elected to an abrupt end of what may have been a vibrant life of a kind-hearted girl. By stepping on this path to the netherworld, the sense of hopelessness and dread fills us completely, as our eyes bear witness to a tragedy that nobody can put a stop to. It is through the long-medium shot from Anju’s back during her descend down the lake that establishes the audience’s vantage point, which is intentional in my opinion. At a critical angled distance through well-devised frame composition that brings the audience close enough to witness Anju’s body language during her descent, which is accompanied by the tragic song that her mother has composed out of agonised yearning for her lost children. The song, filled with lyrics that describe the family’s misfortune and the mother’s depression, instills in us a further sense of pity and sorrow as it is drawn against Anju’s descent to bring about a very powerful impact. “Zushio, how I long for you. Isn’t life a torture? Anju, how I long for you? Isn’t life a torture?”

This is supported by the mise-en-scene where Anju is well lit in the lake while the camera is situated in a spot within the forested area that is shaded by the trees and plants. Also notice how the plantations create a circumference around the frame. Not only is it a good reflection of realism, but also a nice “vignette” effect that seems to highlight and accentuate Anju’s descent. At that distance, anybody would have called out or chased after her to try and prevent her suicide attempt. Yet we cannot. It is possibly what Mizoguchi intended to do with that shot (as depicted in the photo still), placing us in a helpless seat with a window to his bitter world. The scene later cuts out and back at a later phase of Anju’s suicide where she has already fully submerge herself in the deep lake with bubbles surfacing and ripples spreading out radially. The entire descent might have been typically decided by other filmmakers to be screened in its entirety to further induce the shocking impact within the audience, so it may seem like a confusing “tamer” technique adopted by Mizoguchi especially with what he’s trying to achieve in this film. On the contrary, it is not. The scene cuts in just as the final breaths of life escapes Anju’s body in the form of bubbles emerging at the surface of the lake. The ripples travel outwards radially and soon hit the shores, in reminiscence of a tsunami. The epicenter is where Anju drowns and the aftermath of that hits us like how the waves radiates out and disturbs the calmness of the lake. In addition, the serenity of the suicide act also suggests that Anju performs the descent completely without much of a physical struggle that is typical of human instincts. It reflects her complete willingness to accept death as her better fate that will help free both her brother Zushio and her. In some ways, Anju’s death might probably be a better solution when the idea of her being tortured by Sansho’s evil henchmen comes into mind. But it isn’t easy for a young lady to face and accept her imminent death in such maturity and calmness. It reflects a lot on how women silently suffers in acceptance back then, which is a theme that Mizoguchi explores in this film. This can be further elaborated when we notice how the women in this film are the ones who suffered and sacrificed the most. Anju’s suicide is in my opinion one of the best moments of the film where a single scene is able to relay so much more than it seems on the apparent. There is the evoking of pity and sorrow within the audience, the bleak sense of hope within a brutal society, the reflection of the qualities of Anju, the liberation of both Anju and Zushio, and women’s roles in traditional Japanese times.

Zushio Reunites With His Mother

( The scene begins with Zushio arriving at a tsunami-hit island with an old man working away at a wrecked beach. This immediately brings to mind the tsunami-like ripples that resulted as an aftermath of Anju’s self-sacrifice. Could Anju’s death have brought about the wrath of the Heavens? Food for thought. Just as the conversation between Zushio and the old man is over, Zushio is attracted by the tragic tune sung by his mother and walks uncontrollably towards the source of the song. This is visually depicted by Mizoguchi with a tracking shot of Zushio with him in the centre of the frame and shortly after translates into a zoomed out wide crane shot of him discovering a restless old lady who seems to have lost all vigours of life. Aimlessly striking a straw against the ground, a fragile and feeble old lady uses all strength that is left in her to recite the song. This shows a lot on how dearly she regards her children despite several years without any news of them. The wide shot changes to a medium shot before a close up to blatantly screen the piteous image of Zushio’s mother in the face of the audience, another intended technique to bring the audience closer to the characters. The subsequent banter between them sees Zushio trying to come to terms with the harsh fact that he has not been by his mother’s side for a large span

of his adulthood. His mother, in constant self-denial, also finds it hard to believe and refuses to take it in as a joyous miracle. Very much defensive in nature at an old age, it is a self-defence mechanism built up over the years in vagrancy and blindness. We can fully understand how a blind person will never be able to believe what he or she cannot see. It gives us a hint of the hardship she must have endured. Only when the miniature statue of the Goddess of Mercy is produced before she is finally convinced of a dream coming true that she has prayed hard for to happen. After a long embrace, his mother began to enquire on the whereabouts of his sister Anju and his father. Zushio remained silent and was only able to sprout “We’re all alone now”. A hard recollection of the sorrowful plight, Zushio finds it difficult to break the news to his mother, as even he could not swallow the fact by the mere mention of it. Despite being devastated by Zushio’s words, it was however his blind mother who comforted Zushio even when she has equally went through harsh conditions of the bitter world. This is a good display of her motherly love for her child no matter what happens, very much in line with what Mizoguchi desires to achieve – the greatness of women in the society. Mother’s love is probably the greatest of them all. As they indulge and take comfort in each other’s embrace, Mizoguchi begins to take off and perform a wide pan over the vast surroundings of the beach filled with dried seaweed along with a great amount of emptiness. This ending moves the audience with a feeling of recurring sadness and emptiness, as it offers no satisfying resolution to all the bad deeds performed against the characters, but it is exactly what Mizoguchi wants to relay to his audience. It’s a brutal world out there that harnesses no warmth of humanity, and hope seems to be a valuable entity that can only arrive under the façade of a miracle.

List of References S08/71021001/1023 FB4678382679EDE

Sansho The Bailiff - Close Reading  

An indepth close reading and breakdown of two key scenes from the film "Sansho The Bailiff" by Kenji Mizoguchi (1954, Japan)

Sansho The Bailiff - Close Reading  

An indepth close reading and breakdown of two key scenes from the film "Sansho The Bailiff" by Kenji Mizoguchi (1954, Japan)