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Sansho the Bailiff: The Criterion Collection

When their father is sent into exile for being a too-compassionate governor, his wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tamaki), son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), and daughter Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) are sent off without him for fear of attacks. But before the familial unit is dissolved, Zushio is imparted with his father's creed: "Without mercy, man is like a beast. Men are created equal. No one should be denied happiness." The three travel across the land, helped by a woman who offers them a boat ride. But when they get on, the mother is separated from her children, and all are doomed to slavery. Tamaki is taken to be a prostitute, while the children are put into slavery under the care of Sansho the Bailiff (Eitaro Shindo), who rules his slaves with no compassion. In fact, if someone does something wrong, or tries to escape, their face is branded. To protect their legacy, the children are given fake names and hold on to the sole proof of their lineage. After ten years they've more or less accepted their lot in life, but when they hear a song by a fellow slave that was obviously written by their mother, they feel a renewed hope of escape. And so when a situation presents itself, the son flees with a sickly woman and finds sanctuary at a temple. When he returns to the big city, he is granted a governorship over Sansho, and he hopes to take his revenge by enacting his father's sentiments. Sansho dayu (released in the U.S. as "Sansho the Bailiff") came at the tail end of Kenji Mizoguchi's 90-film career, just as his international stock was rising. But while Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa were hitting their strides, Mizoguchi was near death (he died in 1956 of leukemia). Such is partly the reason why he has always been respected by foreign-film enthusiasts, but he has always been something of a shadow figure. Other than Ugetsu, the rest of his movies have mostly been praised through limited video availability and the occasional retrospective. But his master status is unquestionable, especially after seeing something as striking as Sansho. A humanist drama par excellance, Mizoguchi is also a technological marvel, with a great understanding of how to use the camera, to which there are a couple of sequences that would cause any cineaste's hair to stand on end. But it's the care, the brilliant belief in good teachings to allow mortals to be more than themselves, that makes the work so haunting and powerful. It is a striking masterpiece, which explains why it usually shows up on Sight and Sound's list of the best films of all time. The Criterion Collection hopes to restore some of the luster with a marvelous special edition that presents a luminously restored transfer of the black-and-white film in full-frame (1.33:1 OAR) and the original monaural Japanese audio (DD 1.0) with optional English subtitles. The DVD also arrives with a commentary by Japanese-literature professor Jeffery Angles. Supplements include interviews with Kyoko Kagawa (10 min.), first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka (15 min.), and critic Tadao Sato (24 min.). As with nearly all Criterion Collection releases, there's also an excellent booklet, here with an essay by Mark le Fanu, as well as a translated version of the Ogai Mori short story that inspired the movie, and another version of the legend. Folding digipak in paperboard slipcover.

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