`Sansho the Bailiff': a Japanese tragedy

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November 29, 2001|By Michael Sragow

Kenji Mizoguchi's masterly Sansho the Bailiff (playing Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Wheeler Auditorium, 400 Cathedral St.) is an epic medieval fable with an ultra-modern sting. It unfolds in an 11th-century Japanese regime that rewards automatic obedience and efficiency, punishes individualism and altruism, and condones private slave camps that grind men and women to death.

When the antihero, Zushio (Kisho Hanayagi), an escaped slave who becomes a governor, succeeds in freeing his former fellow captives, he loses everything except his self-respect.

It may seem odd for Mizoguchi to name the movie for its villain - the ruthless taskmaster of a sprawling compound. But the choice reflects the director's tragic vision. The film is about virtue tested to the breaking point and beyond.

Zushio's statesman father, exiled because he shielded his peasants from a military draft, taught his son that "without mercy, a man is like a beast." When kidnappers separate Zushio and his sister Anju from their mother - the children are sold into bondage, the mother into prostitution - the boy can't hold onto his father's ideals. In Sansho's inferno, Zushio becomes a barbarian.

Zushio later regains his empathy and honor, but there is no simple happy ending. Irony and tragedy merge - you cry for what he's lost and what he's saved.

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