Saturday, December 02, 2006

This Is How It's Done

As 2006 continues its quest for a great, definitive movie well into the final month of the year, why not flip back a half-century to 1954 and remember how a real, thorough-going masterpiece is supposed to look, sound, feel, and resonate? The majestic Music Box Theatre of Chicago recently hosted a one-week retrospective of restored 35mm prints of Kenji Mizoguchi's movies, and though my end-of-quarter schedule only allowed me to attend one film, Sanshô the Bailiff turned out to be a pretty unimprovable choice. I have never seen a Mizoguchi movie, partly because I was waiting for a curated opportunity just like this one. The VHS transfers of his movies, almost none of which are available on Region1 DVDs, have a besmirched reputation; furthermore, after finally introducing myself to Mizoguchi's countryman Yasujiro Ozu via the pristine Criterion DVD of his exemplary, affecting Tokyo Story, a part of me nonetheless wished that I had held out for a theatrical screening. Cinema this good deserves to be experienced at its full, shimmering size and in its intended venue.

Then again, I question my own convictions, because Sanshô the Bailiff is so dazzling that I recommend it whole-heartedly, even if a middling VHS print is the only available medium. The story is an intense, dramatic, and unpredictable reward in itself, beginning with the exile of a local governor in medieval Japan. The imperial lords have deemed this governor too sympathetic to the roiling, intensifying protests of the impoverished farmers and laborers in his region. Several years after his banishment, the governor's wife Tamaki, son Zushio, and daughter Anju are traversing Japan from its northern tip to its southern extreme, in the hopes of reuniting their family. However, in a frightful episode of deception and betrayal, marked by a horrifying score and harsh, unforgiving edits, Tamaki is separated from her children and impressed into a harem, while Zushio and Anju are sold into slavery in a distant compound, governed with an iron hand by Sanshô the Bailiff. Though the film and the age-old legend that inspired it take the name of this brutal overseer, the story emphasizes the heavy tolls on the son and daughter, as they struggle to retain the high moral principles imparted by their father and to nurture the ever-receding hope of reunion with their mother.

Mizoguchi's worldview is bleak in this picture. Corporal punishments and ethical corruption are ubiquitous in the various timeframes and locales in which the narrative unfolds, and the stark delineations of Good and Evil that one might expect in such a folkloric tale are persistently challenged. The BFI Film Classics monograph by Dudley Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh reveals that for all the consummate grace and exquisitely rendered light and framing in his movie, Mizoguchi offers a notably harsher, more daring version of the story than the one he inherited from the canonized retelling by Mori Ôgai that was a bestseller in Japan in 1915. Despite their pitiable circumstances, the grown children, Zushio and Anju, make difficult and morally debatable choices as they seek to escape a terrible destiny of unrewarded work and filial separation. They are hardly immune to the pressures of complicity and cowardice, which Mizoguchi invokes in strong but unsensationalized images of torture, suicide, and communal despair. That the film's gorgeous, fluid aesthetic of carefully composed images and thoughtful, evocative camera movements remains so constant throughout this melodramatic tale implies a mature, generous worldview that is equally informed by serenity, exploitation, pessimism, and hopefulness, and the acting, photography, soundtrack, and story structure operate in total synchronicity to tease out the psychological, political, and spiritual subtleties embedded in every scene. I am sure the film opens itself to even more layered readings for viewers better versed than I in Japanese history and religious traditions, though one need not press far into the film to detect its angry response to Japan's WW2-era militarism, or its determined separation of proud Buddhist ideals from overweening cultural separatism, or its aggrieved commemoration of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The whole country's midcentury crisis of national identity and cultural destiny registers powerfully at every register of this film, and yet Sanshô the Bailiff at no point seems beholden to any simplified political rhetoric or unilateral symbolic equivalence, and its emotional transparency is never compromised.

The single infelicity in the movie, for me, is a pivotal scene where a recovered memory of childhood and the echoing call of the longlost mother jostle the adult Zushio out of his hard-bitten attitude of selfishness and cynicism; having rewritten the Sanshô fable to emphasize naturalism over sentiment and guilty repressions over mythological contrivance, both the staging and content of this story-point struck me as overwrought and out of step with the rest of the picture. Still, the movie hardly loses its footing even at this uncertain juncture, and the depth, power, and heavily qualified optimism of the latter chapters strike me as beyond dispute. The culminating episode weds a generous indulgence of the audience's desires with a contextualizing cloud-bank of uncertainty and loss. For that reason, among others, it's almost impossible to reach the end of the tale without wanting to immerse yourself again from the beginning, in order to measure its final ramifications against its opening movements, and to trace how Mizoguchi has derived such powerful, intricate feelings and thematic assertions from what seem like such modest techniques. I haven't seen a more elegant, more fully realized movie in 2006, and I expect in 2007 to make my way even further into the Mizoguchi portfolio. The Criterion disc of Ugetsu is a logical place to start, but I know that The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums and The Life of Oharu are just as highly regarded. Recommendations are welcome. Enthusiasm is total.

(Images © 1954 Daiei Studios, reproduced from the Osaka European Film Festival webpage and this Geocities page in Japanese.)

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Goran said...

You're right that this year has yet to give us that one galvanising masterpiece (which most recent years have had far less trouble delivering) and it's fast running out of time. I'm getting more and more antsy by the day.

You're also right that Sansho the Bailiff is the very definition of a galvanising masterpiece (and that its only flaw is the plodding echo of the mother, but it's a perfectly and utterly forgivable one within the context of the beauty that surrounds it). I only ever got the chance to watch it on VHS myself (many many years ago) and I still found it intensely moving. It was actually the third Mizoguchi film I'd seen in a row, and the previous two - Life of Oharu and Ugetsu Monogatari - had left me underwhelmed. I blame the VHS format. Just like VHS made me think Tokyo Story and Ikiru and Throne of Blood were relatively mediocre, I'm sure it's done the same with these two - the Oharu print was particularly murky and as for Ugetsu, I keep seeing spectacularly beautiful stills from it online that I don't remember seeing on the actual tape. It's irritating that I still can't track down either of them on DVD.

4:26 AM, December 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've only seen The Life of Oharu, but it's clearly a masterpiece, and left a much stronger impression on me than any of the handful of Ozus I've managed to catch. I think Ozu has a frustrating habit of lapsing into the sentimentality Mizoguchi heroically avoids -- for me, even Tokyo Story, for all the delicacy with which it unfolds, ends up turning into a faintly reductive Cliffs Notes version of itself ("Isn't life disappointing?"). Still, I hear great claims for the other Noriko films even from friends who agree with me on this point. And like you I'm waiting for chances to immerse myself in Mizoguchi's stuff, including this one, in its full glory. Thanks for the tip-off!

6:22 AM, December 03, 2006  
Blogger jeff_v said...

Sansho dayu is one of my favorite films --I knew you'd like it. Ugetsu and The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums are both masterpieces as well. I also love Life of Oharu --you can't go wrong with any of those. The only other ones I've seen are Street of Shame and The 47 Ronin, both well worth watching, but I wouldn't prioritize them ahead of the others. The one I most want to see is Sisters of the Gion.

1:03 PM, December 03, 2006  

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