16. “Sansho the Bailiff”, Kenji Mizoguchi (1954)

Part of The 100 Greatest Movies I’ve Ever Seen list.

Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff aka 山椒大夫 or Sanshō Dayū

dir. Kenji Mizoguchi scr. Fuji Yahiro and Yoshikata Yoda based on the short story by Mori Ōgai cin. Kazuo Miyagawa with Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyōko Kagawa, Eitarō Shindō

In 100 words: Mizoguchi’s greatest movie is also one of the bleakest tale of morality—an examination of the choices, good or bad, that people make when faced with dire circumstances. Mizoguchi’s formalist direction is awe-inspiring: his careful compositions, his elegant camera work, his actors’ performances, his music, his meticulous edits deepen the emotions of a folkloric tale. Though often accused of blight miserabilism, here it functions as a worldview and he paints a dark one so eloquently, even teasing out the historical, religious, and sociopolitical contexts of the era. The powerful denouement is an astonishing synthesis of everything that came before. Bravo.

Other Movies for Context: Whereas The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums felt like a more gentle and romantic story, this one is absolutely bleak–going for all out thrills than tears (although there’s plenty of the latter to be had). In his oeuvre, it feels closest to Ugetsu (1953), because the crucial tense scenes bear striking resemblance in power to this.


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