Sanshō the Bailiff is a film by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the most respected Japanese directors of all time. At the time, he was rated higher in France than Kurosawa, as he was seen as being more “Japanese” than Western. He made 90 films, but only lived to be 58—and was of course an influence on Kurosawa, who came along later.
Sanshō the Bailiff was made after Ugetsu, probably his best-known film. Set in feudal Japan, it’s about a brother and sister who are sold into slavery after their father is banished for standing up for the rights of the common people. The estate where they are forced to work is run by Sanshō, a nasty slavemaster. Sanshō is the antagonist, but the title is a bit misleading—the film is really about the two slaves and their journey. His son, Tarō, is kinder and tries to help the children survive.
It’s definitely not a samurai movie, it’s a historical drama that goes into the dark side of feudal Japan, including slavery and prostitution. There’s a slight folklore aspect to the story—an anime version made about a decade later really plays up that angle. It has a strong ending, and an interesting narrative about the politics of that era and an anti-slavery message. It’s well–shot, with a long takes, which were one of Mizoguchi’s trademarks. Almost every film he ever made was in black and white, as is this one.
This film and Ugetsu were previously released by Masters of Cinema in the UK as a lavish box set with other Mizoguchi films. That’s been out of print for a few years now, so it’s nice that Criterion has been able to get the rights to release both again. So if like many people you missed out on the earlier release, you can now pick up these two well-known films for much, much less than the box set would set you back on the second-hand market.
The film was previously released on DVD in the US by Criterion, which was then ported over to Blu-Ray in 2013. This is essentially a port of that release. Special features include a commentary by Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles, video interview with critic Tadao Sato, assistant director Tokuzi Tanaka (who died not long after the interview was filmed) and with actress Kyōko Kagawa. The book that comes with it includes an essay by Mark Lee Fanu and two versions of the story that the film is based on.