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SANSHO THE BAILIFF
1954 - Kenji Mizoguchi
Japan
15
Opening Shot

After we get some background into the setting of the film (the late Heian period - "an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings...), Sansho the Bailiff opens to a distinctly Mizoguchi-esque shot. Not only is it beautifully composed but it subtly expresses a families journey as well as the vast natural world that surrounds the intimacy of the family.

The Film

"A man is not a human being without mercy." Sansho the Bailiff is a miracle! To find the definitive essence of cinematic beauty, one would need to look no further then this film which achieves a level of art few film can reach. This film features some of the most striking images ever made - notably Tamaki calling out to her children from atop a windy cliff, or the heartbreaking images of Anju's suicide in the lake and of course a masterful final shot as the camera slowly pans away from the poignant human drama and out toward the vast world surrounding it (bringing full circle with the film opening shot). Every image in this film is staged like a painting and Mizoguchi effortlessly moves the camera in a way that feels like a dream. Mizoguchi composes images using nature (notably trees and water) to beautifully frame the shot while underlying the expression of the large-scaled existence outside the frame and the intimate human drama within it. Adding to Mizoguchi's expressive composition is the beauty of the performances notably in the movements throughout the frame, particularly that of the incomparable Kinuyo Tanaka, the defining actress of Mizoguchi's late masterworks. However the heart and soul of the film lies in the character of Anju who is given loving kindness and grace in the performance of Kyoko Kagawa. Through Anju we observe goodness resilience over cruelty and despair. Equally haunting, devastating and spiritually hopeful Sansho the Bailiff is an unforgettable masterpiece of cinematic beauty- a beauty that can only be captured through filmmaking.

The Filmmaker

Kenji Mizoguchi is one of the most respected and beloved filmmakers in the history of Japanese cinema. Many of his films remained unseen in the West but are widely celebrated in Japan. Those that are accessible to western audiences capture what is the work of a visionary who had extraordinary gifts as a filmmaker. His ability with camera work is particularly masterful. Mizoguchi often keeps the viewers at a distance and through graceful camera movements is able to carry them into the narrative in a way that is memorable and transcendent. Through his use of camera and space, Mizoguchi uses elegant long takes to capture the emotional and psychological essence of the character while using the close-ups only in moments to increase the emotional connection. Early Japanese cinema was often broken into two basic divisions (though there are genres within them): jiadai-geki which are period films set in Japan's past, and gendai-geki, which are films of modern Japanese life. While not exclusively, Mizoguchi's films almost always fit in the jiadai-geki division. One of the most critical and representative narrative theme and structure of Mizoguchi's films is "the journey" of the characters. This is represented best in his 1953 masterpiece Ugetsu, which centers around four different characters (two married couples). They each have separate paths and the journey ends with different results. This film also captures the essence of Mizoguchi's trademarks: the connection of art and nature and the compassion of women. In perhaps his most well known film (at least in the West) Ugetsu, Mizoguchi displays a central focus and sympathy on the women, while the men are expressed as selfish. These would all become the essence of Mizoguchi's work and his ability to bring these themes together is captured through his visual mastery and elegance. Unfortunately I have only seen a fourteen of his films so there is still much more I need to understand and appreciate about this great artist (otherwise he may very well have been placed higher on this list). Mizoguchi's films represent cinema at it's most transcendent and skilled. Like the work of all great artists, his films are better experienced then explained.

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