Sansho the Bailiff – The Criterion Collection #386 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

February 24, 2013 by  

“Sansho the Bailiff” is among the Japanese masterpiece that cineaste should own in their collection.  It’s a tremendous film that captures a wide range of emotions, stellar acting, wonderful direction and cinematography a heartbreaking storyline that still manages to give viewers hope.    If you are curious about Kenji Mizoguchi or a cinema fan who is starting to get into Japanese cinema, make sure that “Sansho the Bailiff” is on top of your want list, because it is a must own title! Highly recommended!

Image are courtesy of © 2013 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Sansho the Bailiff – The Criterion Collection #386


DURATION: 124 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:33:1 aspect ratio, Black and White, Monaural in Japanese with English Subtitles


RELEASE DATE: February 26, 2013

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

Based on the story “Sansho dayu” by Ogai Mori

Written by Fuji Yahiro and Yoshitaka Yoda

Produced by Masaichi Nagata

Music by Fumio Haysaka, Kinshichi Kodera, Tamekichi Mochizuki

Cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa

Edited by Mitsuzo Miyata

Production Design by Hisakazu Tsuji

Art Direction by Kisaku Ito

Set Decoration by Kosaburo Nakajima

Costume Design by Shima Yoshizane


Kinuyo Tanka as Tamaki

Yoshiaki Hanayagi as Zushio

Kyoko Kagawa as Anju

Eitaro Shindo as Sansho Dayu

Akitake Kono as Taro

Masao Shimizu as Masauji Taira

Ken Mitsuda as Prime Minister Fujiwara

Kazukimi Okuni as Norimura

Yoko Kosno as Kohagi

Kimiko Tachibana as Namiji

When an idealistic governor disobeys the reigning feudal lord, he is cast into exile, his wife and children left to fend for themselves and eventually wrenched apart by vicious slave traders. Under Kenji Mizoguchi’s dazzling direction, this classic Japanese story became one of cinema’s greatest masterpieces, a monumental, empathetic expression of human resilience in the face of evil.

A Nikkatsu silent film star turned director, Kenji Mizoguchi similar to Japanese filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, having directed many films and in his 86-film oeuvre, a number of masterpiece films that he will forever be remembered for.

As Kurosawa was known for samurai films and Ozu for family films, Mizoguchi was known for creating films that showcase the suffering of women or women sacrificing their lives for the man they care about, may it be lover or a family member.

Best known for films such as “The Life of Oharu” (1952) and his Silver Lion Award (Venice Film Festival) winning film “Ugetsu” (1953), “Sansho the Bailiff” is a jidai-geki masterpiece by Mizoguchi in which his trademark interest in freedom, poverty and the suffering of women can be seen.

Each of the three films mentioned were top award winning films at the Venice Film Festival, “Sansho the Bailiff” would receive international acclaim and to this day, continues to receive positive reviews from film critics.  Beautifully shot by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, this heartbreaking, wonderful film will receive its debut in HD in America on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

“Sansho the Bailiff” is a film that takes place during the Heian period of Feudal Japan.  A governor who cares and defends the poor has been relieved of his command and to be exiled for going against the feudal lord (by supporting the poor villagers).  As the former governor is exiled, his family which consists of Tamaki (portrayed by Kinuyo Tanaka), his son Zushio and youngest daughter Anju are sent to live with his brother and must leave the land they once were responsible for.

But as the family and their servant go to visit their father in far location by foot, a priestess invites them to their h0me to avoid slave traders who are in the area and are kidnapping women and children.  The old woman recommends that they ride a boat and she entrusts them to ride along with men who will take them to safety.

But the family quickly learn it was a lie and Tamaki is taken by boat to the island of Sado, while the servant is killed by trying to rescue Namiji.  Her two young children are taken by slave traders and sold to a cruel bailiff named Sansho (portrayed by Eitaro Shindo).

His slavery estate is protected under the Minister of the Right and no royalty can do anything for him or other slave trade owners from stopping.

Immediately, Zushio and Anju are made slaves and are forced to do hard labor.  They watch as those who try to escape are then taken and for punishment, are branded on their forehead by burning hot metal.

Disgusted by his father’s treatment of the slaves, Sansho’s son Taro (portrayed by Akitake Kono) cares for Zushio and Anju and finds out their true story and learn they are not peasants but came from an aristocratic family.  He hears the words from Zushio, that his father had given him and Taro is reminded of the importance of being good with people.  He tells the two that they must continue to survive no matter the hardship and reunite with their mother.  He also gives them the names of Matsu and Shinobu.  Disgusted by his father’s treatment of slaves, Taro leaves his father and the slave trade estate for good.

Fast forward ten years later and Matsu/Zushio (portrayed by Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Shinobu/Anju (portrayed by Kyoko Kagawa) are young adults.  The two have undergone severe hardships but as Anju has kept to her father’s words of treating people kindly, Zushio on teh other hand has become desperate and in order to be on Sansho’s good side, he becomes one of the men who punishes the other slaves by branding them.

Anju tries to tell her brother that he lost his way and is doing the opposite of what he promised their father and Zushio, feeling no positive will be coming to their lives, tells her that he must do what he can to stay on Sansho’s good side.

Meanwhile, while Shinobu/Anju is helping out the workers, she hears a song being sung by a slave from Sado.  She asks the young woman if she knows of a woman named Tamaki but the young woman tells her no and that the island is quite big.  But when she begins singing a song, it’s a sad song about Zushio and Anju and when Shinobu asks where she had heard the song, she explains that it’s a song that is quite popular in Sado. Leading Anju to know that her mother is alive.

We then see Tamaki (now named Nakagimi) who is a slave/prostitute in Sado and she has attempted to escape several times in order to reunite with her two children.  But as she tried to escape with boaters, she is captured and as punishment, the slave owner has her tendons cut off, so she will never run off again.

Not long after, we later see Tamaki being helped by slaves to the top of the cliffs overlooking the ocean and screaming her children’s names.

Meanwhile, back at Sansho’s slave estate, Matsu and Shinobu must take the sick Namiji (a woman who also had children had tried to help them when they were younger) to the mountains where she can die.  As they take the older woman up to the mountains, Anju can hear her mom calling out for them and she tells Zushio that this is their opportunity to escape from Sansho and reunite with their mother.

Zushio listens to his sister after hearing the story of the song from Sado about them and also hearing the screams of their mother but Anju tells him that they can not escape together as they will be caught.  He must escape and in good faith, bring Namiji with him.  Anju tells her brother that she will wait for him but he fears that she will be tortured.  But she tells him that Sansho can’t afford to lose a slave.

So, Zushio takes the ill Namiji and runs away to find another village.  Meanwhile, the guards realize Shinobu/Anju’s deception and Sansho sends his men out to find him.  And in order to find them, he gives them orders to torture Shinobu.

But rather than having them torture her and find Zushio, Shinobu makes a major decision.

Will the family be reunited or are more hardships in-store for Tamaki, Zushio and Shinobu?


“Sansho the Bailiff” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio).  The film features wonderful contrast and is well-detailed even compared to its 2007 Criterion Collection DVD counterpart.  Whites and grays are well-contrast, black levels are also much better. But the cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa is artistic and if anything, there are so many memorable scenes in this film.  And it’s great to see a version of the film that looks fantastic on Blu-ray.  I saw no damage or flickering, if anything, the film looks magnificent on Blu-ray!

According to the Criterion Collection, this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image System’s DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.


“Sansho the Bailiff – The Criterion Collection #386” is presented in LPCM 1.0 Japanese with English subtitles. Dialogue is clear and subtitles are easy to read. I detected no pops, crackles or terrible hiss during my viewing of the film.

According to the Criterion Collection, the original monaural soundtrack was remaster at 24-bit from two optical soundtrack prints.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.


“Sansho the Bailiff – The Criterion Collection #386” comes with the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary – Featuring a comprehensive audio commentary by Japanese-literature professor, Jeffrey Angles.
  • Performance – (10:20) A feature from the original 2007 DVD.  Actress Kyoko Kagawa talks about working with Kenji Mizoguchi on “Sansho the Bailiff” and playing the role of Anju.
  • Production – (15:00) From the original 2007 DVD, first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka talks about the meticulous research that was done for “Sansho the Bailiff”.
  • Simplicity – (23:51) A feature from the original 2007 DVD. Japanese film critic and historian Tadao Satao talks about “Sansho the Bailiff” and about Kenji Mizoguchi.


“Sansho the Bailiff – The Criterion Collection #386” comes with an 82-page booklet with the following essay: “The Lessons of Sansho” by Mark Le Fanu, stories such as “Sansho the Steward” by Ogai Mori and “An Account of the Life of the Deity of Mount Iwaki”.  Also, a slipcase is included.

No director likes to be pigeon-holed with making films of a certain commonality bu for filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi, directing films that dealt with the suffering or sacrifice of a woman is what he would be known for.

Having grown up in poverty as his mother tried to raise the family, his older sister becoming a geisha to help the family and even during the silent era, as an actor playing female roles, Mizoguchi was probably deeply influenced by this.

And thus, his willingness to capture the emotion, the pain of a woman’s suffering as seen in “Sansho the Bailiff”.

Unlike any film that you will see from other notable filmmakers of Mizoguchi’s time, such as Kurosawa and Ozu, this 1954 film showed audiences another side to Japanese cinema.  One that is not about the morality or honor of society, nor was this a film about the modern family and family dynamics, this was a film about a family being torn apart by rampant slave trading and prostitution.

The first time I watched this film, it was so profound and heartbreaking.  Never in my life, considering I have studied Japanese, did I ever know about slavery in Japan.  Where anyone was fair game to be captured and sold to work for slave estates without pay and were more or less treated like animals.  Kenji Mizoguchi’s film not only exposed me to this but he makes one feel the emotional impact by capturing the sadness, the torment and the emotion of frustration, sadness, fear all in this film, while showing a glimpse of potential hope.

Mizoguchi’s muse, Kinuyo Tanaka, may not be the primary character of  the film but each film I have saw the actress, she manages to captivate the screen with immense efficacy.  From her role as Orin in Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 film “Ballad of Narayama” to her role in “The Life of Oharu” (1952) and “Ugetsu” (1953), she gives commanding performances.  With “Sansho the Bailiff”, it’s her screams of “Zushio” or “Anju” that stings you to your core.  A woman who would do anything to find her children but each time, she is captured, tortured, defeated.

As a viewer or even a parent, you can’t help but feel the pain of a mother who desperately wants to be their for her children.

Meanwhile, you watch as her two children are forced to pitiful conditions as slaves and to see them ten years later as Anju manages to keep her promise to her father by remaining compassionate, while Zushio is lost.  Feeling that they are stuck and will remain as slaves as one man, who has been a slave for 50-years, must be branded on the forehead for trying to escape.

Both Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kyoko Kagawa give awesome performances, and while we do not see so much of Hanayagi in the future, we do see Kagawa again in Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful ransom film “Tengoku to Jigoku” (High and Low) and decades later in the 1993 Kurosawa film “Madadayo”.

And in balance with the wonderful acting in the film is also the amazing cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa coordinated with the aesthetics that were planned by Mizoguchi.  May it be an opening shot of the family walking together to visit their father or Tamaki on top of a cliff yelling her children’s name or even a scene featuring Anju walking toward a lake, this film is beautiful and memorable!

As for the Blu-ray release, many will wonder if it’s worth the upgrade to Blu-ray as the original Criterion Collection 2007 DVD also had the fantastic booklet and special features that are featured on the 2013 Blu-ray release.  My opinion is that if you want the definitive version of this film, then owning it on Blu-ray for the better picture and audio quality should be enough to convince one to upgrade to the HD version of Mizoguchi’s masterpiece.

The detail is so much better that you can see objects with much more clarity over its 2007 DVD counterpart.  Yes, it’s definitely worth the upgrade!

Overall, “Sansho the Bailiff” is among the Japanese masterpiece that cineaste should own in their collection.  It’s a tremendous film that captures a wide range of emotions, stellar acting, wonderful direction and cinematography a heartbreaking storyline that still manages to give viewers hope.    If you are curious about Kenji Mizoguchi or a cinema fan who is starting to get into Japanese cinema, make sure that “Sansho the Bailiff” is on top of your want list, because it is a must own title!

Highly recommended!



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