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Sansho Dayu + Gion Bayashi
cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Michiyo Kogure, and Ayako Wakao

director: Kenji Mizoguchi

124 / 85 minutes (PG) 1954 / 53
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
[released 19 November]

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens
Japan, during the 11th century´┐Ż In a time of conflict and military oppression, a governor urges his wife Tamaki (Kinuto Tanaka) and their young son and daughter, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) to find safety. An offer of shelter and transport turns out to be a trick and the three are captured. Tamaki is sold as a courtesan, while the two children are sold as slaves to the brutal bailiff Sansho.

Kenji Mizoguchi began his career in silent days in 1923: many of his early films are lost. Although historical subjects were much to his taste, in the 1950s many periods from the past were officially frowned upon as subject matter. They gave the impression of Japan being a feudal society, rather than the forward-looking one it wished to present to the world. Then Akira Kurosawa achieved a breakthrough in Japanese film's exposure to the west when Rashomon won the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival. Mizoguchi felt intense rivalry with Kurosawa, who was 12 years younger and had entered the film industry 20 years later than him - here he was, winning all this acclaim from the west for a historical film! Sansho Dayu (aka: Sansho The Bailiff), based on an ancient legend (recounted in a 1915 short story by Ogai Mori), was his response. It's one of Mizoguchi's greatest works.

In the 1930s, Mizoguchi had experimented with sequence shots (or "one scene one cut," as he described them). By the time he made Sansho Dayu, he had abandoned this practice; though the film contains a great number of lengthy, intricate single takes. The film is quite frank for its time, including the branding of one of Sansho's slaves who has tried to escape. The actual branding is off-screen, though it's clear what's going on. Although the film is often praised for its beauty - and it is beautifully made in black and white - it's a harsh beauty conveying a brutal world, and any happiness is hard earned. The film is melodramatic in places, but it's a deeply felt piece about slavery and injustice, and a moving one.

Eureka's two-disc edition pairs Sansho Dayu with the previous year's Gion Bayashi (aka: Gion Festival Music, sometimes known simply as Geisha). This is a smaller, 'chamber' film set in the 1950s, in which 16-year-old Eiko (Ayako Wakao) asks to be taken in and trained as a geisha. Miyoharu (Michiyo Kogure) is the older geisha who mentors her. This is a lesser film, but has plenty to recommend it. It shows Mizoguchi's adeptness with contemporary subject matter, and his sympathy with women past and present.

Eureka's DVD, numbers 54 and 55 in their Masters of Cinema series, comprises two discs encoded for region 2 only. Both films were shot in black and white and Academy ratio and are presented in 1.33:1. While Sansho's DVD transfer is very good indeed, Gion Bayashi does display signs of wear. The extras include video introductions by Tony Rayns (talking directly to camera and shot in black and white) and trailers for Gion Bayashi. A 96-page booklet contains articles by Robin Wood and Mark Le Fanu, plus a full reprint of a translation of Ogai Mori's 1915 short story which formed the basis of Sansho Dayu.
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