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Misery and the lack of sympathy inherent in man towards other men is the overriding message of the Japanese classic “Sansho the Bailiff.”  All its characters go through unspeakable hardships, everyone suffers unjustly at the hands of others, and when opportunities arise to right great wrongs, more misery is unearthed.  “Sansho” is a heralded classic of Japanese cinema, but one so irrepressibly down, that watching it can leave you wasted by the time the credits roll.

“Sansho” follows the hardships of a Japanese family after the father, a Governor, is stripped of his title and exiled for standing up for the poor and destitute of his community, accused of provoking revolt.  He’s a rare man of compassion who believes all men should live with dignity and humility towards one another, a message he religiously teaches his children, but his message is not shared by his upper class contemporaries.  Several years pass and as his family journeys to be reunited with him, the mother and his two children are separated and sold into slavery by bandits.  The mother’s fate becomes a breif mystery, the two children are sold to a vile slave dealer, the Sansho of the title, and there they spend a decade under his brutal thumb.  Though they try to remember their father’s lesson, the son gradually gives way to the cruel nature of his surroundings, abandoning his father’s ideals.  His sister fears for his soul and begs him to escape with her.  The story takes further turns which provoke compassion, righteousness and ultimately despair.  Though great pains are taken to set things right, some things are beyond repair and some revenge can never be taken.

“Bailiff”, as directed by Japanese legend Kenji Mizoguchi, explores mans tendencies to subjugate his neighbor, to rob women of their dignity and to suppress any and all attempts to free oneself from these unjust bonds.  More specifically, “Bailiff” shows us how the corrupt nature of one man, Sansho, can destroy the righteousness of others and lead lesser people down toward a corrupt path.  Mizoguchi doesn’t think of all people as evil, but he clearly feels that it doesn’t take much to make good people do evil things.  Though the theme seems clear and the characters fit the mold, calling the film “Sansho the Bailiff” feels somewhat off.  Though it’s his cruelty which provokes a lot of the action, he is strictly a minor character, two dimensional in his awfulness, with no story arc himself to complete.  It would be something akin to renaming “Return of the Jedi” to “Jabba the Hutt.”

Viewers looking for challenging cinema which can stir up more than a passive feeling of appreciation would be wise to view Mizoguchi’s masterpiece.  It’s a classic of significant status and a movie not to be taken lightly.  But for God’s sakes, don’t watch it on a pleasant day when the sun is shining, the birds are chirping and life is good.  It will cloud over the shiniest sun, make that bird drop dead and send any viewer into cycle of intense depression.

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