Zushiô's father is an anachronistic Lockean, telling his son "Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness." His commitment to Enlightenment ideals doesn't play over well in 11th Century Japan, and his family is exiled. They don't even last a full day before being kidnapped. Zushiô and his sister Anju are put into a slave labor camp; their mother is sold into prostitution. The heart-wrenching story unfolds, and more than once we are reminded of the slave camps the Japanese set up during World War II. Zushiô and Anju's camp is run by the eponymous Sansho, who recruits Zushiô as a Kapo of sorts. Later, after committing atrocities of his own, Zushiô begs for forgiveness.
The legend of Sansho the Bailiff is an old one, and the book that directly inspired Mizoguchi was written in 1915. The ideas he places into the film are modern and Western.
I don't know enough about Japanese Buddhism to know how prominent the strains of feminism and individual rights have been through its history. What is clear is that Mizoguchi is Japanasizing the values of his country's conquerors. Japan can be a part of the liberal community of nations without assimilating and losing her identity. In fact, for Mizoguchi, liberalism is Japan's true identity. Mizoguchi seems to have been genuine here - his pre-war films share the same themes.
Each scene is beautiful. The shots are long, but the pace doesn't feel slow, thanks to wise, quiet camera movements. I rarely pause and re-watch shots during my first time through a movie, but I felt compelled to several times with Sansho.
Sansho the Bailiff is #87 on the Top 1000 Films list I’m working on. I’ve now seen 351.