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Sansho the Bailiff
(Sansho dayu)

Screening on Film
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.
With Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa.
Japan, 1954, 35mm, black & white, 124 min.
Japanese with English subtitles.
Print source: Janus Films

A highpoint among postwar Japan’s jidaigeki films, Sansho the Bailiff is both one of Mizoguchi’s most accessible works and one of his most sublime (in the word’s original sense as an overwhelming meeting of beauty and terror). The narrative impassively follows two families caught up in sweeping cycles of rise and fall, betrayal and resignation, as Mizoguchi’s tracking shots both entrance with their cinematic majesty and shock with the dark surprises they reveal. Tanaka gives one of the most haunting performances of her career as a mother separated from her children by the cruel tides of fate. Tanaka’s uncanny ability to embody suffering now sees her transformed into an aged woman shaped by the toll of waiting and hoping for the impossible. Mizoguchi’s elegy to human fortitude can also be taken as a stinging critique of the lasting physical and psychological devastation wrought by the militaristic nationalism that led to Japan’s actions in the Second World War.

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