To the Western mind, Sansho the Bailiff's title is a little hard to wrap your head around, especially after seeing the film. This isn't helped by the standard plot synopsis, including Criterion's own, which would indicate a significantly different film. However, with the rerelease of Sansho the Bailiff on blu-ray, the assertion that this is a film worthy of viewing is absolutely spot-on.
Set in feudal Japan, where the practice of slavery is rampant and brutally enforced, a strong willed and morally upright governor is exiled by the military for supporting the rights of the peasantry. Years later, when the governor's family set out to reunite with him, they are set upon by a vicious society of thieves and slave-traders, and the govenor's two children, Zushino and Anju, are torn away from their mother. Later still, after the two have grown up under the oppressive rule of the titular bailiff, Zushino manages to escape, and sets out to reassert his heritage in order to free the province from corruption and the practice of slavery.
So no, Sansho is not in fact the protagonist of Sansho the Bailiff, nor is he even that significant a presence in the film. True, his treatment of slaves like Zushino and Anju is sufficiently villainous and riles the audience's sense of indignation, but these cruelties are made to feel more indicative of their time and place than anything. What's more, the film's premise as detailed above barely covers the first half of the movie, with the sequences featuring Zushino's father occurring entirely within the first 10 minutes. This style of narrative pacing will no doubt seem strange to western viewers, though the movie on the whole feels surprisingly fleet and economical in how it develops its plot without sacrificing crucial moments of character or cinematic composition.
These moments are brought to us by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the most prolific Japanese filmmakers of the first half of the 20th century. Though not as well known today as Akira Kurosawa, a filmmaker with a distinctly western sensibility to his craft, Mizoguchi possessed an equally modern worldview that informed all his greatest works. This accounts for Sansho the Bailiff's vibe of social commentary, with its narrative arc pitting the lone Zushino and the ideology of his father against overwhelming social odds rather than simply the antagonistic presence of Sansho. This struggle, and Mizuguchi's refusal to cheapen it with clean resolutions or pure happy endings, makes the film all the more potent as a true drama rather than a blatant tragedy or manipulative melodrama.
The Criterion edition, while relatively lean, is focused and effective both in laying out the film's depth and nuance for new audiences while also bringing them into the mind of the filmmaker. In-depth interviews with several key contributors and researchers of Mizuguchi's work reveal how the man invested himself in his films via his passion and beliefs. It's here that an interesting parallel between the director and Zushino is raise, as both men are deeply indebted to the women in their lives for all that they've accomplished. Mizuguchi's push for women's rights in his films is but one fascinating aspect of the man that this Criterion edition honors and makes well worth investigating.
Sansho the Bailiff is unrated, containing some mature themes and subjects. The DVD and Blu-ray are available in stores and online for $29 and $34 respectively.