Sansho the Bailiff is a film set in medieval Japan based on a story of the same name. This story is in turn based on a Japanese folklore in which two aristocratic children are forcefully separated from their mother and sold into slavery.
Zushio and Anju are the kids of a governor who is exiled by the state because he is too virtuous and constantly acts as a hurdle in the slave trade of Sansho- the Bailiff. During their time together Zushio and Anju are told by their father that “Without mercy, a man is like a beast, even you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” After a few years of his exile, the rest of the family decide to travel and meet him. The era that this film is set in is 11th century Japan and at that time slave trade, child labour, prostitution and other horrible things were at heights. People picked up random people and sold them to traders in exchange for money.
During their travel, the mother- Tamaki is kidnapped and sold into prostitution in Sado and two kids are sold to Sansho- the Bailiff as slaves. What follows is a long and gruelling story of these characters in search of each other. The film follows the children throughout the years. The conditions they are made to work in are hellish. It is particularly harsh for them because they come from a family of government officials who enjoyed all the riches in their life. They get a ray of hope during their initial years in which the son of Sansho helps them in settling under Sansho, but he eventually leaves the place to become a monk. The kids have to survive on their own after that.
As the years pass the kids grow up. Zushio becomes a handsome young man and starts to work directly for Sansho. Anju grows up to be a beautiful young woman deeply involved with the matters of the slaves. Both of them have the same desire which is to meet their mother again but years of hardship has made Zushio hopeless and merciless. He deliberately forgets his father’s teachings even when reminded by Anju.
Sansho the Bailiff is considered to be a masterpiece of Japanese cinema and rightly so. The camera work is phenomenal, the storytelling feels fresh even today and the haunting song of Tamaki calling her children will play in your head even weeks after watching. It is a bleak story to go through but it didn’t hit me as hard as it should have.
80s Bollywood cinema largely revolved around this theme of a family being separated from each other for various reasons. Sansho the Bailiff, in that sense, felt too familiar to me. I have grown up watching many 80s films on TV, maybe that was the reason. While watching the film I was constantly distracted about how the film will turn out to be but in the end, I was completely wrong.
As the days passed this film came back to me again and again and eventually, I realized how beautifully this film is made. In the first viewing however it felt overly long and painful to sit through making it hard for me to analyze it in any way. Exposure to similar things does that to you. Now, whenever I think about this film the song of the mother comes to my mind which is haunting and perfectly captures the pain of a woman longing for her children.
Sansho the bailiff is a must-watch film in my opinion and I will definitely return back to it again. I feel I am doing a disservice to this film and Bollywood 80s cinema by comparing them to each other. These two are completely different worlds and should not be mixed.