Let me start off by saying that this is not a happy movie. In fact, it can be downright depressing. So if you’re looking for something lighthearted or heartwarming you’re probably going to want to watch something else.
Sansho the Bailiff, named, oddly enough, after the antagonist, is a historical film set in feudal Japan during the Heian period. A local governor is being banished, with his wife, Tamaki, and two young children, Zushio and Anju, being forced to live with her brother. His crime? His compassion for his subjects clashed with the royalty’s taxes on rice. Six years later the family, including their maid, travel to visit him…
…the parting words to him by his father still memorized in Zushio’s mind.
“Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.”
Zushio has taken these words to heart, but they are soon put through the ultimate test when the family is tricked and quickly captured by slave traders, the maid being killed in the process. Separated, the children are sold to an estate administered by the cruel Sansho who encourages brutalization, horrific working conditions and branding whenever they try to escape while their mother is forced into prostitution on a different island.
Years pass and the hardship has caused Zushio to forget the teachings of his father, instead turning into a cruel henchmen, often carrying out the torture of other slaves.
That would be a branding iron he’s holding.
Still hopeful and not yet ready to give up, Anju often encourages him to run away with her to try to find their mother. They finally get their chance when they’re both ordered to desert a sickly woman in the hills and Anju finally manages to re-spark the humanity within her brother, ordering him to escape so that he can one day return and rescue her and their mother.
Wondering what she’s doing? Hint: She’s not going swimming.
This is a film that focuses on the depressing inhumanity of the times and the internal battle between doing the right thing and fighting against the (much more) powerful majority. This is a film about adversity, separation, and grief with a heart wrenching conclusion that is both hopeful and incredibly painful.
The acting is superb, and the cinema-photography is impressive. Every scene seems to be shot as if to capture the pure essence of depression. If you enjoy deep drama and period pieces, than Sansho the Bailiff is certainly something to look into.
Sansho the Bailiff is currently streaming on Amazon.
It is also available on DVD and Bluray, via the Criterion Collection.