As many historians have noted, the humanist ideals professed in Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece Sansho The Bailiff are more than a little anachronistic, retro-fitting 20th-century notions onto the film's medieval setting. Sentiments like "All men are created equal" or "Everyone is entitled to happiness" don't really wash in a period so firmly entrenched in militarism and sharp class distinctions. But in 1954, with Japan and the rest of the planet still reeling from the cruel nationalism that sparked World War II, the film's thematic resonance was unmistakable, a powerful rebuke to the tyrannies of the recent past. Told with the stark simplicity of a fairy tale, Sansho The Bailiff demonstrates how compassion can overcome the forces of hatred and oppression, and shows how trying it is to remain decent and humane in an inhospitable world. Tragedy and transcendence are equally present, and their coexistence produces one of the most profoundly moving final scenes in film history.
After his alignment with local peasants puts him in direct confrontation with a feudal lord, an idealistic governor is exiled, leaving his wife (Kinuyo Tanaka) and two young children to find their way among bandits and slave traders. A seemingly altruistic local offers them food and shelter, then hands them over to mercenaries, who force the mother into prostitution and send the children—played as adults by Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kyôko Kagawa—to labor as slaves under the brutal Sansho (Eitarô Shindô). While Tanaka weathers the hardships with a shred of hope, her brother proves less resilient, transformed to such a degree by Sansho's switch that he forgets his father's teachings.
Apart from the one-two punch of Ugetsu and Sansho The Bailiff, Mizoguchi was best known for his strong sympathy for his usually put-upon female characters, and that same affinity for the downtrodden gives the film its soul. Its humanism doesn't suit the period, but that just makes it more powerful, since the characters are trying to uphold principles in a place where they're truly radical. And when those ideals finally prevail—in a scene Schindler's List would quote 40 years later—the beneficiaries weep in equal parts gratitude and surprise.
Key features: A dryly informative commentary by Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles, liner notes that include Ogai Mori's 1915 short story "Sansho Dayu," and new interviews with Kagawa and assistant director Takuzo Tanaka, who both testify to Mizoguchi's legendary perfectionism.