Based on the ancient Japanese legend, a well-respected and admired 11th century governor (Masao Shimizu) is sent into exile after disobeying the reigning feudal lord leaving his wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their two children son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and daughter Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) to fend for themselves. They are subsequently sold into slavery by bandits, Tamaki to a brother and Zushio and Anju to Sansho (Eitarô Shindô), the heartless owner of a slave camp.
Director Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô Dayû) is a masterpiece and landmark of Japanese cinema, that is an undeniable fact and one you can’t help but notice the very moment it comes to an end. Playing out like Greek tragedy, this retelling of the famous legend, famously adapted by author Mori Ogai in 1915, is startling in its tragic effectiveness, stirring corners of the soul to life some viewers might not know even existed beforehand.
Mizoguchi's restraint is what is most astonishing here. He never allows the story to drown in melodrama, stripping the action to the bone and letting circumstance and situation speak breathlessly for themselves. The saga that this once close-knit family endures is something staggering, their ten-plus year journey impossible to fathom let alone forget.
The camerawork is awe-inspiring, Mizoguchi's use of long takes set against seemingly endless vistas something extraordinary. At the same time, the visuals enhance the emotional pieces of the story, hammering home every character’s respective journey in a way that would not have happened otherwise.
Sansho the Bailiff is one of the greats. It is a movie that routinely gets listed as one of the giants in all of Japanese cinema and as one of the most important all-time as far as cinema itself is concerned. A breathless achievement that has not lost an ounce of its shattering power, Mizoguchi's effort is cause for continued celebration and study. Most of all it is a movie I will continue to cherish and one I will return to time and again long into the foreseeable future.
Sansho the Bailiff is presented on a dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray MPEG-4 AVC Video with a 1.33:1/1080p transfer. As stated in the included booklet: “This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.”
Sansho the Bailiff comes to Blu-ray in Japanese LPCM Mono and includes optional English subtitles. Again, from the included booklet: “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from two optical soundtrack prints. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
Extras here include:
· Audio commentary featuring Japanese literature scholar Jeffrey Angles
· Performance, an interview with actress Kyoko Kagawa (10:19)
· Production, an interview with first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka (14:59)
· Simplicity, an interview with Japanese film critic and historian Tadao Sato (23:50)
Also included is a 80-page Illustrated Booklet featuring 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.
Sansho the Bailiff is rightly regarded as a masterpiece. Criterion’s Blu-ray release is as definitive as it gets. My highest recommendation.