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Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho the Bailiff (1954; also called Sanshō Dayū, and in Japanese 山椒大夫) is a film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi that Japanese cinema fans, or any cinephile, shouldn't miss if they want to see this director at the peak of his craft.

A noble governor is banished and must leave behind his wife and two small children. He gives his son a statuette of Kannon, the goddess of compassion, and tells both kids: "Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others." And with these words they too leave, off to live with an uncle.

But in a fateful turn of events they're waylaid en route by a deceitful priestess. A heart-rending scene shows the mother being snatched away from her terrified children by bandit slave traders, who take her by boat to Sado Island. The kids are also sold (for "seven silvers") into slavery, at an estate where the merciless bailiff Sansho brands the foreheads of those who resist their bondage.

The kids are told that no matter what comes to pass they must endure (enduring is a common theme in Mizoguchi's work, often alongside the themes of misery of women and ruthlessness of poverty and servitude). And endure they do. The film picks up again in their late teens. Anju, the girl, who has held tenaciously to her father's words, convinces her brother, Zushiō, to escape. He seems to have forgotten the words or their meaning and is bereft of hope. But he changes his mind about giving escape a go after he's forced to carry a dying slave up into the mountains, where the estate masters expect her to perish more quickly and out of everyone's sight. Off Zushiō runs, headed for Kyoto, but the tragedy continues. We're left with a narrative that feels whole and well-rounded, and presses us to consider the nature of cruelty and mercy.

As an aside...

Japan had an official slave system from the 3rd century until 1590, when it was abolished by the feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (to resurface much later when the Japanese government facilitated the use of foreign sex slaves from 1932 to 1945 as well as prisoners of war captured by the Japanese military). Japanese slaves were not only sold domestically but also sold, especially in Kyushu, to the Portuguese. They would then be sold again for sexual and/or labor use in Portugal, other European countries, and even in India and Macau. Slave women from Japan are believed to be the first Japanese to set foot in Europe, and some were sold to other slaves, suggesting that slaves from the Far East were considered to be of less value than their African and South East Asian counterparts. Hideyoshi, furious that his own people were being sold for use overseas, put an end to it. He blamed the Jesuits along with the Portuguese for the trade, and so he banned Christian proselytizing and missionaries as well. After that he went so far as to torture, crucify and mutilate a group of Catholics known as the Twenty-six Martyrs of Japan, a few of whom were Japanese while others were from as far away as Spain and Mexico. Shūsaku Endō's novel Silence (1966) (adapted into Martin Scorsese's 2016 film of the same name) depicts a time about 40 to 50 years later (1638 or so), after slavery had been stomped out and when the Japanese government's persecution of Christians, initiated in part because of the slave trade, had reached new heights.

While Sansho the Bailiff is based on legendary folklore and set in the Heian period (794 to 1185), centuries before Hideyoshi's reign and influence, it reminds us that slavery did exist in Japan and gives us a rare cinematic interpretation of the brutality and harsh conditions those people would have faced.


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