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Review: Sansho the Bailiff + The Ballad of Narayama

Japanese masters
By BRETT MICHEL  |  February 20, 2013

When Japan's Kenji Mizoguchi died in 1956 at the age of 58, fellow filmmaker Akira Kurosawa remarked that "in the death of Mizoguchi, Japanese film lost its truest creator."

At that point, Kurosawa was much better known in the US, with pictures like Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954). However, Mizoguchi in the same period had garnered greater stature on the international stage with his award-winning films The Life of Oharu (1952) and Ugetsu (1953).

Sansho the Bailiff (1954) adapts the folktale of a brother and sister in 11th-century Japan who become separated from their mother and are sold into slavery. Mizoguchi and co-writer Yoshikata Yoda based their telling on a 1915 short story by Ogai Mori, but they metaphorically interchange the film's slave compound with World War II's concentration camps. The original story can be found in the booklet that's included with this elegant new Blu-ray edition ($39.95) of Mizoguchi's masterpiece from the Criterion Collection. Also included is an earlier version of the tale in written form, plus an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu. Disc-based extras include audio commentary from Japanese-literature expert Jeffrey Angles and video interviews with cast and crew members. As for the film itself, the image and sound quality is a notable upgrade from Criterion's 2007 DVD edition.

The late Kinuyo Tanaka, wonderful as the long-suffering matriarch, also appears in Criterion's superb new Blu-ray of The Ballad of Narayama (1958), Keisuke Kinoshita's alternative take on parent-child relationships. Antithetical to Mizoguchi's naturalism and location shooting, Kinoshita employs kabuki-infused stage techniques and theatrical lighting.

Neither is to be missed.

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 See all articles by: BRETT MICHEL