Home Video Hovel- Sansho the Bailiff, by Tyler Smith
Kenji Mizoguchi’s heartbreaking Sansho the Bailiff feels almost like it was conceived by Charles Dickens. Our main character’s circumstances change so rapidly that we feel as though he can’t keep up. As the film progresses, we discover that we are right. While we appear to be seeing a man, we are actually watching a scared young boy trying desperately to understand what has happened and what he should do. And when he does what is right, we see the hopelessness in his eyes as he realizes that it seems to all have been for nothing.
The story begins with a governor in medieval Japan being ousted by his superiors, much to the horror of the peasants who love him. Apparently, in his attempt to make life better for the peasants and farmers, he overstepped his bounds and is now separated from his family and exiled. His wife, daughter, and son do what they can to stay together in the midst of this awful time, but are soon taken advantage of by cruel slave traders, who separate the kids from their mother and sell them to a cruel man known as Sansho the Bailiff. He is the steward of a large tract of land and he runs the place with an iron fist.
Years pass, and the son, Zushio, and the daughter, Anju, adjust to their sad new life. Zushio has in fact been given a place of prominence among the slaves, as one of Sansho’s enforcers. This involves punishing those slaves that try to escape, often branding them with a hot sword as a warning to others. Anju is horrified at the man her brother has become, but he argues that if he just keeps his head down and does what he is told, perhaps he can get on Sansho’s good side. This is a far cry from the young boy who pledged to uphold his father’s humanitarian philosophies.
Eventually, one of the slaves gets sick and Sansho orders that she be taken out to the woods and left to die. Zushio and Anju are among those that are assigned to the task, but the inhumanity of the order eventually overwhelms them. Anju persuades Zushio to take the sick woman and flee. He does so reluctantly, knowing that he is leaving behind his sister to feel the Bailiff’s wrath. He successfully gets away, hiding out in a monastery before deciding to go before the Emperor’s Chief Adviser to make an impassioned plea for mercy and assistance in freeing Anju and the other slaves. The Chief Adviser can’t be bothered at first, but soon realizes that Zushio is the son of a once-respected governor. The Chief Advisor takes pity on Zushio and gives him his father’s old post as governor. Once in the post, Zushio decides to stay true to his father’s example, fighting injustice and inhumanity.
Sansho the Bailiff definitely has a Dickensian quality to it. Zushio’s life changes drastically from one moment to another, usually due to powers beyond his control. He struggles to keep up and try to make sense of it all, but he really doesn’t have the ability to make any real changes himself. The only resource he has is his desire to do good. Sometimes that’s enough to make a difference, and sometimes not. By the end of the film, Zushio has truly gone from being a boy to a man, as he comes to understand that our efforts aren’t necessarily going to make everything turn out okay for everyone, but that it could make a huge difference to a select few, and that’s better than nothing.
It is a film that is surprisingly pragmatic, but I’ve usually found that beneath pragmatism lies a deep well of fatalistic cynicism. One thing that I really took away from Sansho the Bailiff is the notion that indifference and cruelty is the default position of humanity. People will always look for the opportunity to subdue other people for their own gain. We lament this fact, but there’s not much we can really do to change it. All we can do is answer for ourselves. We can let the savagery overtake us or we can actively try to do things right. Others might be inspired to do the same, or they might not.
In the end, the question becomes what are we willing to do when the chips are down. Cruelty can be incredibly easy, while nobility and selflessness can require sacrifice. And the best way to try to change this is to simply make the right choice when it is presented. And, when we do, we can end up like Zushio, who, as governor, is fighting a system that will likely win out in the end, but whose tearful glee at the fact that he is able to improve the lives of others along the way makes it all worth it.
I’m reminded of the famous quote by Edmund Burke, who said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Zushio looks around and sees a land in which evil has been triumphant for far too long. He is tired of doing nothing; he’s going to do something, anything. And, really, that’s all any of us can do.