While Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece might be the greatest film ever made about slavery, it’s not well-known in the United States. Until 2006, it wasn’t even available on DVD. Part of the reason is the title. It’s just confusing. In an English speaking country, a bailiff is a low-level court officer. Sanshō the Bailiff, however, should more appropriately be called Sanshō the Overseer, Sanshō the Slave Driver, or Sanshō the Plantation Owner. What’s more, while Sansho is the most important character in the film, he has only a fraction of the screen time that Zushiō and Anju, his two young victims, do. Try to imagine that Harriet Beecher Stowe had titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin “Simon Legree: Agricultural Supervisor” and you’ll get an idea of how bad the English translation of Sanshō Dayū really is.
Zushiō and Anju are the two young children of the Governor of the Tango, a province during the Heian Period of Medieval Japan. The Heian Period, which took place simultaneously with the early Middle Ages in Europe, was a brutal time in Japanese history, “an age before people became human.” When the governor attempts to defend the people of Tango against conscription he’s sent into exile. Zushiō and Anju, along with their mother Tamaki, attempt to join him, but all of them are betrayed by a treacherous priestess, captured by bandit, and sold into slavery. Tamaki goes to a brothel. Zushiō and Anju go to Sanshō Dayū’s plantation, a brutal gulag that he manages for a high government official called The Minister of the Right.
The only time we see Zushiō’s and Anju’s biological father is in a flashback, where he gives the two children a small statuette, and tells them to stay strong in his absence. “Without mercy,” he says,“ man is no more than a beast.” The challenge for Zushiō and Anju is to hold onto the image of God, their father, in a world ruled by the devil, Sanshō. Ten years later, Anju, now 18, remains faithful to the governor’s memory. Zushiō has given way to despair. Well on his way to becoming another Sanshō — Sanshō’s own son despises him — he helps to torture a 70-year-old slave who attempts to escape so he can “die a free man.” When Anju tries to convince her bother to escape, he tells her to get realistic. Don’t you understand? He he says. We’re nothing but slaves. We’ll get robbed by bandits or else we’ll end up as beggars. Anju’s retort against Zushiō’s realism is withering.
“You already have the heart of a bandit and a soul lower than a beggar’s.”
If Sanshō the Bailiff bears a superficial resemblance to American films like 12 Years a Slave, or to the 1950s biblical epic Ben Hur, then a description of the plot doesn’t really do it justice. As a work of art, a religious meditation, and a call to revolution, Sanshō the Bailiff surpasses all but the greatest French and American films. It’s can be compared to the greatest English and Russian novels, to Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens by way of John Ford’s most accomplished black and white cinematography. The narrative device that Mizoguchi introduces to reassure Anju that her mother is still alive is nothing short of a work of poetic genius. Her ultimate sacrifice is one of the most vivid acts of martyrdom in all of cinema. Zushiō’s conversion from evil to good is as subtle as it is convincing. You barely notice it as it happens, but it all seems inevitable once it’s accomplished.
That Sanshō the Bailiff doesn’t have to deal with race in the same way an American movie would might actually strengthen its anti-slavery message. After his change of heart, Zushiō can go from a position of subjugation to a position of power in a way that 12 Years a Slave’s Solomon Northup cannot. Slavery, Mizoguchi seems to be saying, is as much a spiritual condition as it is the result a racial caste system. What’s more, once Zushiō is appointed to his father’s old position as governor of Tango, Sanshō the Bailiff becomes an astutely political film, examining issues that Americans have debate since the revolution. Mizoguchi, who has Zushiō’s father quote the Declaration of Independence is clearly aware of the history of slavery in the United States, as well as the debate about politics and private property.
When Zushiō announces his intention to ban slavery in the province of Tango and to liberate the captives on Sanshō’s plantation he’s told that it will destroy his career. The government cannot interfere with the rights of private property by legislating against forced labor. Zushiō’s solution it to appeal to the people to become their own liberators. He has his officials put up an Emancipation Proclamation in the public square. He knows that Sanshō’s goons will try to suppress the government edict as surely as he knows their attempts will fail. The redeemed Zushiō, in fact, is more John Brown than Abraham Lincoln, arriving at Sanshō’s plantation with troops to put him under arrest only after the rebellion is already well underway. Zushiō is as interested in begging forgiveness from the man he tortured, which he must do before he can resign his position of governor, and to looking for his long lost mother, as he is in exercising his authority.
Sanshō is another story. Eitarō Shindō, who plays Sanshō as a craven little social climber, is a great actor. The expression on his face goes from smug satisfaction in anitipcation of being given a reward from the governor to one of shock and horror when he realizes who the governor really is. It is only at the last minute when we realize why the film is named after Sanshō instead of Zushiō or the luminous Anju. We only become enslaved, Mizoguchi has demonstrated, when we seek to enslave others. In a film about slavery, nobody is more enslaved than Sanshō the plantation owner, torturer, petty sycophant, and buyer and seller of human flesh. Zushiō, by contrast, ends up in poverty, yet reunited with his now blind and crippled old mother, an anonymous pauper delivered from the evil of wealth and power by the memory of Anju’s noble soul.