Sansho The Bailiff, Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi's movie that won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, opens this season's Japanese Film Festival, and while the titular character happens to be one of the villains in the story, and not even that of a lead character, it's no surprise why this movie was chosen as the opener as it fit the theme of this year's festival to a tee, that of the power of women and femininity. Also, since Kinuyo Tanaka is the actress/director-in-focus as well, this is but one of the movies in her illustrious career that she had worked with all the masters of Japanese Cinema.
But to me, it served as an introduction to both the work of director Kenji Mizoguchi, as well as actress Kinuyo Tanaka, and watching the movie as is without in depth knowledge of the socio-political background that this movie is based, I found it rather hard to appreciate the grandeur of this highly acclaimed epic, but nonetheless it served as a good start to want me to revisit the filmography of Mizoguchi, and perhaps learn from scratch and see his evolving into a cinematic master.
Telling the story of a family ruined and separated by river pirates when the head of a household, a governor no less, gets sent into exile, the movie follows two threads, one with the wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) being sold to prostitution, while the children, Zushio (first played by Masahiko Kato, and then by Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Keiko Enami, and Kyoko Kagawa) get sent off to live as slaves in a household run by the titular character (Eitaro Shindo). We get first hand glimpse of the hardship of the lives of the children, where escapees from their confinement get branded permanently with a mark to their foreheads. Although clinging onto their father's wise teachings on humanity, the children, growing up in such a harsh environment, slowly get jaded, and before you know it, Zushio doesn't bat an eyelid when he gets to met punishment amongst fellow slaves.
This is a tale about one man's redemption, turnaround and exacting sweet vengeance, but not before learning the mistakes of his ways, and suffering terrible loss along the way serving as a wake up call. It's akin to the likes of other classics such as Ben-Hur, and I thought Zushio's tale can be split into 4 parts - as a kid from a good family stature being stripped of everything leaving a very thin sliver of humanity from which to cling from, followed by his awakening from his tragic loss of kin - which was the much talked about haunting scene in the movie - and then his rise to power through a series of positive coincidences, before ending again with his personal sacrifice to look for his long lost mother, whose song in the town she resided in served as clues as to her whereabouts.
While I have no qualms that this movie is indeed assuredly shot, I think long-time readers would likely guess by now that I'm not really a fan of long shots and extended takes. It took its time to tell its story and there are a few moments which looked really comical, even when it's not supposed to, like the behaviour of the mob which fit the intended mentality.
That said, I might give Sansho the Bailiff another go, since it has been given the Criterion treatment, and hopefully on a DVD I would have cultivated enough patience to appreciate the movie a lot more than this first viewing on the big screen.