Zushio and his younger sister Anju remembered their parents well – they are always with them, when you put the surrounding life aside. Father – the governor, was as if a bit stern, but in reality emotionally available (children always felt, that he is with them, interested in them). The mother was with them, and at the same time she was, as if, somewhere else from where she always came back to their questions. She was beautifully patient with them. Zushio remembered the father’s motto: 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.”

Zushio and Anju were still small when father, for his moral idealism, was punished for being “too kind to the peasants, too lenient, not harsh”. He lost his position and was banished from the area he governed. It meant that his wife and two children lost everything as well, and had to move on foot through the big territory to the mother’s family. On their way they were kidnapped and sold into slavery. The mother and her children were forcefully separated and lost contact.

The film depicts the life of enslaved Zushio and Anju in the working camp, life of their mother sold to a brothel, children’s forgetfulness under pressure of everyday survival and disappearance of the very contact with the concept of meaning of life, and, when they became grownups amid a life of mechanical work, their miraculous communication through the channels of memory and spiritual passion with their mother, and, finally, their self-liberation from a world of anonymous work and servitude with the help of father’s motto and mother’s love.

Mizoguchi’s description of life in the concentration camp of work for survival and profit for the camp’s CEO Sancho is far from being historically naturalistic and rather expresses the director’s concept of slaving for bigger or smaller remuneration – without disinterested investment of human soul and creative freedom which human beings need as an inalienable right reflecting their spiritual need to live with dignity. Mizoguchi is not trying to emphasize “how terrible the living conditions were many centuries ago in comparison with benevolent present times” – he represents the working camp as a surprisingly “modern” institution dedicated to making profit on bad working conditions. When Anju and Zushio, under the influence of their mother’s song delivered to them by the magic power of human creative desire, decided to run away from the camp and fight for the liberation of the workers from slavery, we in the audience are excited not for the human past but for today’s fight of American labor for their right to have Unions, decent salaries and better working conditions.

The film is marked by the director’s pedagogical intentionality as a semiologist – Mizoguchi is teaching the viewers not to take what is visible and obvious as the essential – not to take the surface semantic structure as the meaning of what’s happening. The film is full of sharp examples when the director “traps” us in the visual images which he constructs as if they are carrying their meaning on their surface. But real meaning will be the opposite of what is easily noticeable. The film, in this sense, is a semantic map for looking at the surface of the images that is opposite of what is hidden behind them as their real meaning. This makes Mizoguchi’s film especially a valuable pedagogic tool for training the viewers to intensify their thinking in the same moment they feel that they already got it. In its semantic control over its intentionally self-contradictory and self-correcting (in the perception of viewers) images, “Sansho the Bailiff” is the cultural opposite of entertaining/commercial movie-making.

Father-meaning and mother-meaningful feelings became the nucleous of Zushio and Anju’s unconscious psychological predispositions

On their way through the country the mother and children were passing through a field of swaying reeds, which are as if, crying about the future awaiting our heroes and, moved by the wind, as if, saying farewell. The scene communicates a premonition of the coming inhuman ordeals.

Zushio and Anju soon after losing their mother to unknown, are taken to be sold to the labor-camp of CEO Sansho

About ten years passed – Anju and Zushio became grownups amid the conditions of work for survival – without a meaning of life. Emanation of mother’s being reached them – her song about them was as if carried through winds and waves into Anju‘s perception.

Even becoming crippled and blind, Zushio and Anju’s mother continued to sing her song about her children and her love for them and about their father and life of love and dignity

Zushio was able successfully run away from the working camp and delivered petition about the sweat-shops of Sansho. The goddess of mercy, Kwannon which the guards found on Zushio’s neck, impressed the prime-minister, who motivated by the tradition of transference of wisdom from father to son, decided to appoint him as the governor of the same province where our hero spent years as a slave worker. But the prime-minister forbade Zushio to intervene with Sansho’s prosperous business establishment. Here we see Zushio on his way to his new post paying a visit to the burial site of his father.

Zushio is coming to the spot where Anju, to prevent giving under torture information about Zushio’s escape to Sansho’s henchmen, had to commit suicide.

Zushio violates the prime-minister’s order and shutting down Sansho’s business based on inhumane treatment of the human beings. Here he is watching how Sansho’s working camp is being burned down by the liberated workers.

After liberating the slave-workers Zushio immediately resigned – he felt that his mission in life is completed, and he went looking for his mother and found her crippled and blind. Father’s motto was realized in life. The son and mother both feel that their family was saved under the sun of meaning, in spite of a very high price for this achievement.

Posted on Jan 26 2015 –   Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954) – Overcoming Of Family Values (No, their Re-definition According To A More Humane Perspective) by Acting-Out Politics