Kenji Mizoguchi’s Adaptation of Sansho the Bailiff

This is written for my Japanese Film & Literature class in the summer of 2017.

Among the four (NOT THREE!!!) most celebrated directors in the golden age of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, known for his compassion and sympathy towards the servitude of humans, was born for the screen adaptation of the story by Mori Ogai. Unlike other masterpieces of Mizoguchi such as The Life of Oharu, The Street of Shame, and Sister of the Gion[1] whose main focuses are on the sufferings of women, Sansho the Bailiff is led by a male character, Zushio. Of course, Zushio only represents a whole class of slaved people who earned nil and saw no future.

Compared to the original work, the film made a couple of important changes. I would like to discuss two of them in this essay. First of all, the film eliminates the seemingly present supernatural power in the story and gives more details to the functioning of the political and bureaucratic system at the time, which makes the adaptation more realistic than the story. In the story, before she was separated from the two children, the mother emphasized the importance of the amulet (p8). Whereas in the film, there was no mentioning of the amulet at their separation. Indeed, the amulet played a much more important role in the story later than in the film, seemingly responsible for various dreamy and even supernatural events. While in the film, the amulet appeared far less often and was more a reminder of the father who, when passing the amulet to Zushio, spoke the repeatedly theme of the movie, “A man is not a human being without mercy. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitle to their happiness.”[2] In the film, it is made clear that the father was exiled for standing by his values and being kind to his workers. As far as I remember, no specific explanation was provided about the father’s demotion (p25). Clearly the film tries to reduce the religious emphasis of the story and puts more attention in expressing the dissatisfaction against the political system at work. In addition, the film included a visit of the minister to Sansho. Sansho offered the former multiple forms of luxury (food, dance, and treasures) in exchange for support with which he later threatened Zushio when Zushio took his revenge. This form of exchange of favors or corruption if you like should be very familiar even to modern viewers and no doubt speaks loud to the theme of the movie.

The second major adaption made in the film concerns Zushio who was corrupted by the power of Sansho temporarily but eventually turned his head to light and his father’s words. In the story, Zushio remained at least innocent throughout and was never in collaboration with Sansho. Whether this difference adds more realistic vibes to the film is ambiguous in my opinions. One might say yes by arguing that collaborating with men in power is what humans do in most cases; coming out of the mud unspotted is just an idealistic fantacy. On the other hand, the transition of Zushio in the movie was too abrupt to be realistic in my eyes. When Zushio and Anju were picking tree branches to `bury’ a dying girl, they recalled the night they spent camping in the wild with mother and all of a sudden Zushio proposed an escape. Since Zushio was never compromised in the story, no transition was needed. Also the escaping scheme seems more thorough (mostly by Anju) in the story. Nevertheless, one might admit that the transition added a little drama to the film plot which is usually appreciated by the viewers.

There are several other noticeable adaptations in the film. For instance, the mother did not open her eyes when she united with Zushio which again is consistent with the more realistic rhythm of the film. One difference that really puzzles me is the further weakening of Anju’s role which just does not seem like Mizoguchi’s style. Although rumor has that[3] despite international recognition, Mizoguchi did not like the film at all himself as the studio put a lot of demands and influences in its making.

[1]Admittedly Ugestu is probably the most famous work of Kenji Mizoguchi internationally. Nevertheless I am not a huge fan of it thus omitted it in the text.
[2]As translated in the version of The Criterion Japanese Collection Vol. 2 by Criterion Collection/Janus Films.
[3]I cannot locate the source. It might be the book I read Mizoguchi and Japan by Mark Le Fanu but I am not sure.