Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films that has many times been cited as among the greatest ever made. Based on an ancient folktale, Mizoguchi places the action during the Heian era where a feudal lord is being stripped of his position for daring to speak out about brutal treatment of the peasants. The lord will be exiled but his wife and children will travel to stay with relatives until sent for. Parting from his children he entrusts to them a statue of the goddess Kanon (goddess of Mercy) and instructs them to remember to show mercy, be kind even if it causes you personal pain.
Some time later the mother and her two children set out to join the father with only one servant and no resources to help them get there. Having failed to find lodging in the town (taking in travelers has been banned because of the bandit/slaver problem) they prepare to make camp in the woods. An old lady priestess offers them food and lodging for the night and apparently knows a quicker way to their destination if they’re prepared to travel by sea. Of course, it turns out that the old lady’s motives were far from altruistic and the family are quickly separated, the mother and female servant in one boat and the children dragged away elsewhere. The slavers have great difficulty finding a buyer for these wealthy children, being so small they won’t be as productive, especially considering their background makes them unused to physical labour. Eventually the children are sold to the notorious Sansho, who shows no mercy or consideration for the children’s youth and is determined to get his money’s worth.
As time moves on the children struggle to adapt to their new conditions, the girl clinging to memories of the past and the boy wishing to forget. He casts aside his father’s teachings and seeks to become closer to Sansho until the illness of another prisoner, coupled with the echo of his mother’s voice, reminds him of his better nature and sets him off on his path to redemption.
Sansho the Bailiff is a morality tale about the importance of compassion and of standing up for what is right over what is expected. Cruel men like Sansho, who can regard people as objects and are without the ability to understand the point of view of those who might raise questions, are much in favour with the feudal lords who see nothing except their profits. The profit of the lords must be maintained, those who make suggestions that might interfere with those are removed. Sansho is valued because his turnover is so high, more humane procedures would necessarily reduce this and so are out of the question. Who cares about a bunch of lowborn ‘cattle’? they aren’t like us, they are not us, so we need not concern ourselves with their lives, their feelings or their souls.
When Zushio has committed himself to the path of mercy, vowing to bring down this economy of exploitation, he again finds himself effectively powerless. Although he has achieved the necessary status, the will of the other lords will always win out. Taking drastic action wins him a small victory in the immediate area, but it’s not clear how long this will last or if any permanent change will occur. He’s no better off as a lord than he was with Sansho, he’s still a slave just in a nicer cage. So abandoning his position he sets off in search of his mother.
Finally mother and son are reunited, but the reunion is bittersweet. Zushio exclaims that he could have come here as a fine, important man and taken her away back to the life she once knew, but instead he kept to his father’s teachings and has nothing. She replies that she’s sure that if he had not obeyed they would never have met again. In the end their only victory is to have survived and found each other, but it’s the victory of the pure soul.