Transcending Philistine Family As The Creation Of Sacred Family

Solitary and voyaging, the soul must assume the weight of its destiny
Jacques Derrida, “Of Spirit (Heidegger and the Question)”, Un. of Chicago Pr., 1989, p. 105

Man is questioned by life and has to answer and be answerable with his life… the primal elements of human existence – being conscious and being responsible… responsibility arises out of the concreteness of person and situation and grows with this concreteness. Responsibility grows with the uniqueness of the person and singularity of the situation. Uniqueness and singularity are fundamental components of the meaning of human life.
Victor Frankl – “The Doctor and the soul (From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy)”, Vintage, 1973, p. 63

“When destiny leads one to the frontier of his being, it makes him personally conscious that he stands before the decision either to fall back upon that which he already is or else to transcend himself. His own limitedness was his security, and now it is threatened…The task is to cross over the frontier and wrestle for the beyond…
Paul Tillich – “The Future of Religions”, Harper and Row, 1966, pp. 53-55

To summon up the strength to translate the sublime (utopian) vision into everyday practice – to practice utopia
Slavoj Zizek, “Iraq the Borrowed Kettle”, Verso, 2004, p. 179

Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.
“Sansho the Bailiff”

Even children as young as you sold and bought, treated like animals and nobody questions it
“Sansho the Bailiff”

Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films for whose sake cinema exists

Gilbert Adair

K. Mizoguchi, “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954), with Eng. subtitles

Kenji Mizoguchi in his youth

Kenji Mizoguchi
Mizoguch as a young man

Kenji Mizoguchi in 1954
Kenji Mizoguchi in 1954

Father’s motto

Zushio’s father for humanely treating his peasants was banished from the province where he was a governor. As a way of saying farewell to his family he recited to his little son the motto which became the meaning of Zushio’s life: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others. Men are created equal. Everyone is entitled to their happiness.”

Amulet of Kwannon, the Goddess of Mercy, which father gave to his son and which Zushio kept with himself for whole life

This shot registers that separation is already settling in between the family members who, in spite of their love and dedication to one another, will never be able to see each other again

Punishment for humane treatment of the poor

Desperate peasants full of gratitude to their master (arrested exactly because of his humane treatment of them) are preparing to rebel against the military authorities in order to liberate the governor. What from the first glance looks like mutiny is, in reality, an attempt to save the landlord. This contradiction between the visible and the essential, denotative and connotative, is the first of the many examples of semantic contradictions, which Mizogichi opens for the viewers to emphasize the importance of the difference between the surface of things and their essence.

Mother and her children

While typical mothers prepare their off-springs for fight for survival, the mother of Zushio and Anju wants more for her children than high place in the social hierarchy. She understands the importance of a life based on justice instead of rivalry, equality instead of fighting for domination and superiority, on decency instead of manipulation or hate.

This intermediary (double exposure) shot of the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) who has lost her home and now leading her children through the whole country to the house of her parents, registers, that nature becomes the family’s dwelling place (until the civilization of strife/survival will not swallow our heroes as its victims), and proclaims the spiritual unity of culture and nature.

Here we see Zushio, ahead of his sister Anju, mother and the maid “traveling” through a dangerous territory full of robbers and slave traders.

World of work for survival

Sansho – the work camp administrator is towering over his subordinates – his own son Taro who is compassionate to the enslaved laborers, and the “capo” who shows the new bought – adolescents Zushio and Anju, to the master.

Sansho looks like a sorcerer presiding over the world without freedom

Sansho is bribing a public official (perhaps, it’s more fitting to use another, more updated verb – lobbying a politician)

Bribing/lobbying includes not only providing golden coins and expensive gifts, but dancers/prostitutes for the distinguished guests visiting the camp for workers sold into slavery

During several years Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) is transformed into a hard working young man with some technical skills and exemplary loyalty to Sansho who can rely on Zushio and entrusted to him the especially important and responsible tasks, like punishing by branding those who tries to run away.

We see here how Zushio is branding the worker who tried to escape.

The mother was violently separated from her children and sold off to a whorehouse. She attempted to escape and in order to prevent such attempts in future she was crippled by the owner. Only the memory of her children kept her to go on living. She often sang a song about Zushio and Anju to the clouds and the sea waves which carried it to Anju, who shared it with Zushio, and this song and mother voice reminded the brother and sister about their destiny.

Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) is trying to persuade her brother, who is adapted to a brutal life, to start to belief in human dignity once again. Father’s motto and mother’s voice return them back to life.


Zushio tries to deliver the petition about the concentration camp with sweatshops where enslaved people toil in inhumane conditions, to the head of the government.

The petition is stretched by Zushio’s hand as his father’s motto – from a blind and mute life.

Zushio’s saintly deed: liberation of enslaved workers

The prime-minister who had read Zushio’s petition happened to know his father years ago and respected him very much. He sympathized with Zushio’s personal story and following noble tradition of the transference of wisdom from fathers to sons, sent him to the post of a governor of the same province where Zushio worked for many years as a slave-worker. It was an incredible luck that the governor’s position there was open. But the prime-minister forbade Zushio to interfere with Sansho’s business because “private enterprises belong to another socio-political structure than public affairs”. In this shot we see how Zushio-new governor disobeying the prime-minister’s command, decides to make Sansho arrested for many violations of the law.

Zushio disregards the prime-minister’s instructions and dedicates himself to liberate the slaves. He doesn’t know yet that Anju, his sister, who inspired him to run away, was forced to commit suicide in order not to betray him under torture by Sansho’s henchmen. To kill herself before interrogation was for her the only possible choice.

Sansho-the Bailiff is arrested according to the new governor’s (Zushio) order

After Sansho was banished from the province, and liberated slaves burned the concentration camp, Zushio resigned and left to find his and Anju’s mother. In today’s logic he did the most difficult thing – he sacrificed his prestigious job (without even trying to save it).

Spiritual triumph amidst devastated nature and destroyed lives

Zushio finds Tamaki, his mother, old, blind, crippled, pauperized and helpless

Again and again Zushio tries to persuade mother that he, indeed, is her son.

Again and again she refused to believe him because many men tried to fool her by using her son’s name to trick her.

Mother asked where Anju is – isn’t she with Zushio?

Mother recognized Zushio through the little sculpture of the goddess of mercy

Mother’s joy in reunification with Zushio was darkened by learning from him about her husband and her daughter’s death

Mother and son with mutual awareness that the motto of mercy for others as a fundamental principle was realized in life

The miracle of the unification of the sacred family, as if, moves the mountains to the sides, and life of human beings and nature becomes possible again.


The traditional concept of the family defines it as a mini fortress in the wilderness (as the area of private relations separated from the public realm). Private life for us is our emotional greenhouse. It is the nucleus of our being. We go to the social world to provide for our private kingdom. What is our private wealth as not the transformation of what is public into what is private? And isn’t our consumerism and fun outside our homes the pollution of external world by our private yearnings? Mizoguchi strikes at the very heart of our lives – at the primacy of our orientation on “my life” as something more basic than the public sphere. He projects a democratic dream of equality and care about other people (not people of my family first) into life in Japan of many centuries ago. He is going so far as to endorse the destruction of the traditional family values for the sake of creating a democratic sensibility of the valuing equality and justice. He goes even farther by depicting with compassion and admiration a father and husband who is ready not to support prosperity of his family for the sake of a larger and a more profound truth about not using his family as an excuse not to care about and even exploit “others”. And still more, Mizoguchi’s protagonist – the father-governor, tries to make his children the fighters for justice instead of accumulating more means for the family life.

Is Mizoguchi destroyer of family values? Or is he creator of an alternative family values when prosperity of “my” family doesn’t contradict other families’ interests? To feel oneself equal with others who are not equal to you – means to be ready to put yourself in a worse situation than they are. People always sacrificed themselves and others for the sake of personal power and wealth and ambition and pride, for being worshipped and glorified. Why to be indignant if this father risks his family for a noble and humanistic ideal? Isn’t to become more humane more important than to gain advantage over the less lucky? Father in the film could never achieve realization of his ideals if not his wife who agreed to suffer without losing generosity of love. Is Mizoguchi a Christian eccentric? Never mind the formal attributions and definitions. The father’s message puts his son and daughter into a life of unimaginable hardship. It destroys them as baby-philistines and it saves them into being Holy children. The price for this transformation is high but without it the price will be worse, only it is the other people (in a context of the film – peasants) who will be paying. Father decides to take a burden on his shoulders and he took responsibility for sharing it with his wife and children.

Father-motto needs mother-voice (of love and compassion) to deliver the message to the heart of children. Meaning doesn’t exist without language, but language doesn’t exist without the emotional code (mother’s song to children through the barren space of their forced separation). Two women’s (the mother and the sister) role as mediators between the father’s motto (commandment) and his son’s attempts to realize it in real life gives them quite a traditional position in men’s universe as helpers of a male hero. The plot of the film is, essentially, the story of this mediation which includes the sister’s self-sacrifice. But what a genuine harmony Mizoguchi shows between the male and female sides of this exceptional noble family! By referring to the role of “maternal vocal mirror” (Kaja Silverman, “The Acoustic Mirror [The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema]”, Indiana U. Press, 1988) in awakening Zushio and Anju’s conscience, Mizoguchi defines the mother’s role as an extremely noble and far beyond of any competition with the father and rivalry between men and women in general without which fight for equality between genders in the West could hardly be understood. The mother is the meaning’s messenger, somebody who incarnates meaning into the flesh of human emotions. In the sublimated patriarchal frame of reference of the film ”there is no contrast between mother’s singing voice and father’s prohibitory voice.” (Ibid, p. 99), no contradiction between mother’s unconditional love and father’s demanding one.

Like children will not be able to internalize adulthood if mother/father’s efforts to transfer it to them are formal (a child doesn’t understand the justifications for abstractions like “be obedient” or “be kind”), it needs not only language but also the emotion to transfer the meaning into the child’s visceral understanding. Mother’s mystical call to her children conquering the geographic spaces is the equivalent of father’s spiritual mission. We see how in the very process of the family dissociation (the destruction of philistine family of accumulation of goods) a new family is born (a Holy family). The price for transformation from a philistine to the Holy family happened to be death of the two family members – the father and his daughter. But its triumph is the victorious survival of the mother and son. At the end of the film son and mother achieve realization of the ethical principle of justice and equality – although they lost everything in terms of material prosperity and social comfort. They find themselves in glory of the very humility praised by Mizoguchi’s film.

Throughout the film Mizoguchi emphasizes the cardinal ambiguity of the human condition reflected in the ambiguity of human self-expression and language – when the peasants gather to help their ousted governor we see their mutinous pre-disposition, when they run to save their governor we see them as, as if, attacking his convoy, when Zushio tries to deliver his petition to the emperor’s adviser he looks like an assassin, the disgusting bailiff is the title hero of the film because for majority of the mindless conformists surviving under his leadership by exploiting the paupers he is a role model and a hero, etc. This ambiguity is the spiritual feature that we must nurture because it includes the refutation of the solidity of the temporal, of petrification of forms of life. Mizoguchi celebrates the spirituality of the very difference between appearance and essence. He is teaching viewers the semiological sensitivity, a creative interest towards the semantic dissonance between denotation and connotation, between visible and essential.

The film is about the spirituality of being that undermines all earthly certainties and solidities and all the (semantic) clichés. It is about the suspension of what we take as the very basis of our existence. It questions our comfort and our everyday beliefs. It questions our identities as human beings who want to succeed over others, to settle in life as in a piece of property. But, according to the film, the meaning of our being is more important than being without meaning. The ideal family is more important than the factual one. But how to understand this when our children are not ideal but real?

Mizoguchi’s film is an appeal of human spirituality from our past to our spiritually disastrous present in the 21st century when Sansho the Bailiff (Mizogichi’s personification of demon of money-power) is absolutely victorious by Wall street money and Military-industrial complex might, when Zushio and Anju’s father (personification of the moral alternative to Sansho) cannot be even imagined as holding any “responsible” social position, when women are proud to compete with men for social position by the price of neglect of their children (depriving them of psychological wholeness as an object for identification), and when children are seduced into becoming consumers of degraded entertainment and owners of private machine-guns. More and more people today are like Zushio when he became loyal to Sansho and was promoted to the position of punishing/torturing those who tried to run away from the concentration camp of working for survival. For us today to experience Mizogichi’s film is like a breath of fresh air amidst the semantic pollution turning us into ultimate worshippers of power and money. It is the meaningful life that verifies its genuineness, like the meaning of speech – the reality of language. When life becomes tautological – when life points to itself, not to its meaning, it becomes like the lives of the financial manipulators dedicated to financial manipulating, like the lives of global political schemers who live to create more global political schemes, and like the life of moneymakers living to make more money. When people just live for the sake of living and surviving for the sake of surviving – we are confronting existential perversion of a pernicious denotativeness of life.

According to Mizoguchi’s film, there are two types of people, the ones who are identical to themselves – living tautologies, and those with an internal world, with otherness inside – free to carry contradictions, opened to change (they are not completely identifying with their social roles). The governor of the province is a fighter for the rights of the peasants, and his children are not only slave-workers but fighters for liberation. Mizoguchi tells us that human being cannot become one-dimensional scientist, engineer, husband, wife, etc. Totalitarian systems – be they ideological or financial, try to reduce humans to their social roles and their minds to functional, technical education. “Sancho the Bailiff” doesn’t depict human fight for liberation as easier than it is in reality. Its “optimism” and “pessimism” are as blended as worldly spirituality and worldly flesh.

Questions for film-study enthusiasts:

What makes the story represented in Mizoguchi’s film not only universal and easily understandable but unique and exceptional?

Which two sub-stories the film’s plot consists of?

Can we say that in SB the moral ideal (father’s motto) relates to the plot as meaning of life relates to life?

Why did Mizogichi make the work camp a place where Zushio and Anju are never abused outside their physical work (for example, they‘re never beaten, raped, or insulted or laughed at, etc.), and even work is not shown as excessively hard?

Why Mizoguchi instead of emphasizing the exceptional poverty of living in work camp shows life there not only as a place of work but as a place of “success” and even “reward” and promotion for good work?

How is spirituality defined in the film?

What is the difference between Zushio’s father’s spiritual position and the one of John the Baptist in “Salome’s Last Dance” by Ken Russell, or, on the other hand, that of Lancelot in “Lancelot of the Lake” by Robert Bresson?

When Anju in work camp tries to awaken Zushio to the alternative life, aren’t his arguments against liberation reflect typical conformist position and passive adaptation to reality typical for our life today? What are these arguments?

Can the fact that Zushio resigns immediately after completing his heroic deed can help us to understand why today’s liberal politicians and people with democratic sensibility are not able to effectively fight the conservative juggernaut?

Is Sansho a kind of monster/villain or is he just a person following the business logic?

Posted on April 3 2015 –   “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954) by Kenji Mizoguchi by Acting-Out Politics