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Kenji Mizoguchi's internationally-acclaimed 11th century tragedy gets a Criterion stamp of approval on Blu-ray...
Criterion / 124 Minutes / 1954 / Unrated / Street Date: February 26, 2013
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff is one of the more acclaimed motion pictures of all time, yet even as Criterion continues to bestow lovely editions of the film on DVD and now Blu-ray, I continue to find it a tough nut to crack. Mizoguchi’s style is neither as formal as Kurosawa’s nor as emotionally palatable as Ozu’s (the two filmmakers Mizoguchi unfairly gets thrown in with), and for better and for worse, a movie like Sansho the Bailiff – while often stunningly beautiful - absolutely showcases the auteur’s purposely leaden and ennui-ridden style: it’s an imperfect dramatic narrative, but probably a perfect Mizoguchi movie.
In the picture, we’re transported to eleventh century Japan, where we meet Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo) and her two children, Zushio (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) and Anju (Kagawa Kyoko). Tamaki has a tough time as it stands making things work, with her husband being newly exiled (he disobeyed the wrong feudal lord), but when the mercurial Sansho (Shindo Eitaro) shows up and kidnaps her kids and sells them into slavery – well, things get worse.
Sansho the Bailiff is a punishing movie, though as an intellectual and historical exercise, it’s roundly evocative. That being said, however, aside from its aesthetic sheen, I’ve always found it almost impossible to enjoy. I’m in a minority, it seems – the film has such an international following that will keep Mizoguchi’s name on a hallowed list of directors for generations to come (and this doesn’t take into consideration the filmmaker’s other valued works) – but as glorious as this new Criterion high-definition edition of Sansho might be, its particular nastiness still feels hollow, at least to this guy.