Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sansho the Bailiff

This might be my shortest post ever if I get my way - I was cutting the tags off of a stuffed narwhal I got in the mail and I sliced my finger really badly. Seriously badly. I sort of paused and looked it at and had that feeling of dread you get when you realize you filleted your finger with an extremely sharp pocket knife. I saw there was a huge, thick, flap of skin, and a big circular notch cut out of my finger, gross! It was a bloody, painful mess, and I just tried to sort of mush it back together and hope for the best. But it's really, really painful. It's hard to bend my finger and the entire thing hurts, not just the part that I cut. So typing sucks. A lot. I keep stopping to complain and whine. Because of this, I want this post to be really short so I can rest my hand. How dumb is my life, seriously?

Today I watched Sansho the Bailiff, an incredibly sad, powerful, and beautiful film. It was directed by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1954. It's great, but it's hard to watch. There is a lot of suffering and pain, and it's not really a movie that is probably easy to watch again. Ebert writes about a film critic who said how he loved it, but came away from it broken and doubting he'd ever watch it again. I certainly feel the same way.

The plot, briefly, involves a father, who is a governor, who is exiled. His wife and young children are separated, and his children are taken to slave labor camp run by the sadistic Sansho. He rules the camp with shocking brutality, branding attempted runaways and really just sucking in general. Most of the movie is about the suffering that the children experience. Other things happen, obviously, and the children spend time trying to escape, of course, but I don't want to ruin it and/or type more than I have to.

I really liked the cinematography, it's really elegant and masterful. He never gives away too much information in his scenes, but composes them really wonderfully. Ebert mentions that he never really directed his actors to stand anywhere in the frame, which is shocking because they always seem really carefully placed. I never would have expected that he didn't have insane control over everyone, but maybe that's why his movies seem so natural and real.

The story, although sad, is incredibly good. Ebert writes that the director had a hard childhood, and this film is almost autobiographical. The movie is shockingly real, because there really were slave labor camps like the one depicted, as well. I guess I bring these things up because it was important for me to see the film as realistic or truthful suffering instead of all fiction. I guess it wasn't important as much as it was powerful to know that, and just made the impact of the film even stronger. I think I often waffle between declaring that movies about serious issues are amazing and important and saying that I hate them because they depressed me because I was in a bad mood to begin with. This movie somehow compels me to say neither, and I think it has something to do with how...graceful, I guess, it seems. I feel irritated when movies show suffering or drama and it feels manipulative, like it's all engineered to get the most emotion out of you. This movie never felt that way to me (maybe because it had no leading soundtrack, lots of harsh moments are not shown on-screen, etc), and I think because of that, even with all the pain and sorrow, I didn't feel like emotion was getting dragged out of me, it felt natural and real. Not manipulated. Genuine.

The amount of suffering in the film, which all happens for no good reason, was tough. I definitely at some points would have rather been relaxing or doing something else just because it was so sad at times. However, I'm glad I stuck with it, because despite that, I just really liked it. It was that sort of catharsis sad, where it was a good excuse to get some emotion out, you know? I know I'm misusing the term, but I don't know a better one. If you're ever in the mood for a movie like this I highly reccomend it, but it is a rough one to sit through. Ok. Time to rest my hand/pass out.

Have any thoughts on Sansho the Bailiff? Share them in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Sansho the Bailiff
Buy it on Amazon

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