"Without mercy," says Taira Masauji to Zushio, his young son, "man is not a human being." He was a provincial governor in late Heian Japan, a fair man who tried to bring justice to the peasants. He is being exiled for disagreeing with the province's feudal lord. Years later, the boy, now a young man, is given this advice by a monk. "Humans have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them. They're ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot come true."
Which message is the true one?
Sansho the Bailiff is a beautiful, simple folk tale of grief. It eventually works its way into a redemptive humanity, but not until we have experienced the deepest of sorrow and injustice. When Zushio's father is exiled, he, his mother and his sister must set out to find protection with distant relatives. They are captured by slave traders. Their mother is separated from them sold into prostitution. He and his younger sister are taken as slaves to work in the manor of a distant great lord. The manor is run ruthlessly by Sansho, the bailiff. The work is unending. Those who are sick must keep working, and when they are unable to work they are taken to a field and left to die. Those who try to escape are branded. There is no hope. The two children grow to be adults. The sister has kept her sense of humanity. She has never forgotten her mother. Zushio has gradually become as heart-hearted as the bailiff and his overseers. He has forgotten his father's teachings. At one point he brands another slave, an old man, who tried to escape. A woman near death, taken out to be left to die, awakens what we thought Zushio had forgotten. His sister tells him to escape, and stays behind to delay the pursuit. The consequences lead to more sorrow, to sacrifice and to a realization that Zushio has remembered what his father stood for and taught him. The conclusion is a reaffirmation that without mercy, we are beasts, but there is much which is bittersweet as we learn also the fates of Zushio's sister and mother.
The movie is one of those great visual poems of grief and hope. The story is told in a hundred shades of gray, both emotionally and in the exquisitely presented black-and-white photography. The simplicity of the story and the beauty of the images almost make the story seem a misty dream, except the mist is largely made of tears. The score for the film adds immeasurably to the sense of sad unreality. This is truly a profound film; whatever a person may bring to the movie is amplified by the message, the style and the story-telling of the film itself.
The Criterion release is exceptional. Even the packaging is as restrained and somber as the movie. Included is an 80-page booklet which contains two versions of the folk tale the movie is based on as well as a short commentary. On the disc itself is an audio commentary and several video interviews. I usually don't pay much attention to DVD extras, but in a few days I plan to visit these. However, I think this is a film to first watch and think about by yourself for awhile.