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Sansho the Bailiff

(Japanese 1954 b 124')

En: 6 Ed: 7

Directed by Kenji Mizuguchi, a father has to leave his family and gives them advice. His wife, son, and daughter suffer poverty and slavery; but they try to live his teachings.

         In the late Heian era (12th century) of Japan their mother Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) explains to Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) what happened to their father. In town many people protest against more taxes for war. In his house her husband Masauji Taira (Masao Shimizu) tells Tamaki to take her children to her parents’ house. He says that men are beasts. He tells young Zushio (Masahiko Kato) that although one may be hard on oneself, he should be kind to others. Masauji leaves his house and travels by horse.

         Tamaki and her grown children travel on the same route, but peasants tell them no lodgings are available because of bandits and slave dealers. They camp by a field under a tree. They sit by a fire and hear wolves. A priestess finds them and invites them to her place for warm porridge. The priestess suggests they go by boat to avoid bandits. When Tamaki and her servant get in a boat with two men, they push the children away and set out. A man holds back Zushio.

         The man sells Zushio and Anju to a man who says their mother was sold and taken to Sado. The man takes them in a boat and sells them to the rich bailiff Sansho (Eitarô Shindô). The two children refuse to give their names. Zushio is taken to Kimpei, and Anju is taught to work by Namiji (Noriko Tachibana). Zushio is carrying wood and collapses. Anju goes to him. Namiji is trying to escape and is caught by men. She is branded and screams. Taro (Akitake Kôno) takes the two children into a barn and gives them food. Zushio repeats his father’s words, and Taro gives them new names.

         Sansho summons Taro, and an official praises him. Three women sing, and Taro puts straw on the sleeping children. Taro leaves the village.

         Ten years later Zushio and Anju are adults in the same barn. Two men grab old Sansho, and Mutsu brands him. Anju works at a loom and teaches the new girl Kohagi. Namiji is tired. Anju hears Kohagi singing Zushio’s and her name, and she learns it is a famous song in Sado about how life is torture. Nakagimi tries to take a boat, but she is caught and returned to be punished. Anju suggests to Zushio that they escape, but he says they have no money and are servants now.

         Mutsu is told to dump old Nimiji in the mountains. He carries her away and says it is the bailiff’s orders. Anju follows them to the burial ground with a mat for Nimiji. She prays her next life will be fortunate. Anju asks Zushio to help protect her from the frost, and they gather wood and grass. They hear their names. Zushio asks her to escape; but she tells him to go alone while she delays them. Anju leaves the area with Mutsu, and Zushio carries Nimiji away. Men tell the bailiff that Mutsu escaped. Nakagimi tells Anju to tie her up and go. Men untie Nakagimi, and she points them in the wrong direction. Anju wades into water and drowns while Nakagimi prays. Men with torches search the town. They question a temple priest. Inside Zushio tells Taro that medicine has made Nimiji better. Taro says humans have little sympathy, but he says he will get a letter from the high priest to the chief official for him.

         Zushio goes to Kyoto and pleads before the chief official. Guards take his family treasure. In jail he cries. He is led to Prime Minister Fujiwara (Ken Mitsuda) and pleads for his father, but he is told his father died last year. Fujiwara appoints him governor of Tango, raises him to the fifth rank, and names him Masamichi Taira. He says he will liberate the slaves of Sansho, but Fujiwara says he must not interfere.

         Zushio visits his father’s grave and asks about the flowers on it. He learns his father taught people to be moral. A judge welcomes Zushio to Tango. Zushio decrees that the sale or use of slaves is forbidden. The advisor Norimura (Kazukimi Okuni) says it is reckless. Zushio says he wants to free Sansho’s slaves. He is warned that he will be dismissed and banished. Zushio says former slaves must be paid fairly. He sends Norimura to fetch the girl Shinobu. He goes, but men tell him to leave.

         People of Tango read a sign on the new law freeing slaves. Sansho sends a courier to Kyoto and orders the notices torn down. Men destroy the signs, and others fight them. Zushio goes to Sansho and tells him he and his men are under arrest for destroying the signs. Sansho tells him to repeal it, or he will tell the minister. Sansho is arrested. Zushio tells people that slavery is banned in Tango and that they are free. He asks where his sister is, and Nakagimi says she died. He visits the place she died.

         People celebrate and burn furniture. Norimura tells Zushio that Sansho’s house is on fire. Zushio gives his letter of resignation to Norimura to take to the chief advisor. He says those suffering will understand why. He says he is going to Sado.

         On the beach Zushio says he is looking for Nakagimi, and he is directed to the brothels. He finds she is a young woman wanting his business, but he leaves. Women tell her the former Nakagimi died, and he goes to the beach and asks about the tsunami. He hears the torture song and finds an old woman singing. He embraces his mother and says he is Zushio. She does not believe him. He follows her home and gives her the Kwannon that Father gave her. She touches Zushio’s face and recognizes him. She asks where Anju is. He says she joined Father. He cries and says they are alone. He gave up being governor to follow his father’s teachings. She is glad they are together again.

         This drama depicts the suffering of slavery and the oppressed poor in medieval Japan. When a good man is given an opportunity to govern, he tries to reform the society; but the power structures are too strong, and his efforts are nullified.

Copyright © 2009 by Sanderson Beck

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