The space on our collective hard drive for "film culture," and classic international cinema, is indisputably shrinking, squeezed out by YouTube, unreal reality TV, blockbuster franchises, advertising-as-entertainment, reruns-as-collectible-DVD-box-sets, ad fucking nauseam. And yet, the torch is kept burning by some—by, among others, a few obsessive holdouts slaving away in the outlands of the DVD republic, from whence comes the Criterion Collection's genuflective edition of Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (1954). I hope I'm wrong, but I sense in ways I wouldn't have just a few years ago that the overdue spit-and-polish presentation of Mizoguchi's late-career masterpiece will be considered an essentially irrelevant matter in 2007's cataract of cultural options. Is Mizoguchi remembered at all outside of film schools and the pages of Sight & Sound?
History still manages to revere Ozu's rigorous constancy and Kurosawa's noble pulp, but Mizoguchi is a more difficult master magician to love and a harder legend to sell in this land of semi-cine-illiteracy, even among the movieheads. Over a 33-year career, his style was neither hyperrestrained nor post-Kabuki. Instead, Mizoguchi followed in the footsteps of Murnau, investigating the potential for emotional expression through camera motion and placement, often reframing perspectives in midscene as if to remind us of human ambivalence. (In this sense, virtually any of Mizoguchi's set-piece traveling shots rephrases the message of Kurosawa's Rashomon—at a substantial savings in time and bombast.) The laziest eye can see how Mizoguchi's pensive-yet-restless, heat-seeking visual style expresses the stories—most of them tragic diagrams of sexist inequity—and vice versa.
Sansho is a well-known Japanese morality fable: In the medieval day of warlords and human chattel, a railroaded governor's wife and children are waylaid on their journey to join him in exile and promptly sold into slavery, setting in motion a tragic tumble of events and injustices that rolls unpreventably downhill like a deadly avalanche. No other film so carefully interrogates the way the poison of social oppression and abuse stays in the system, and in the structure of society, over years of painful life. It's not a film you should sit down to lightly; keep tissues, oxygen, and ice water close at hand.
But it is must-own, essential viewing for anyone ready to declare him or herself even nominally acquainted with cinema and its capabilities. Up to now, Sansho had only been available in god-awful public-domain video copies and war-trodden 16 mm prints; the DVD restoration awakens some of the most gorgeously silvery images of the 20th century, all the more heartbreaking for their precise beauty. Of course, the DVD package is fiercely reverent, buttressed with new interviews, scholarly exegesis, a new essay about things Mizoguchian, and two text versions of the original story: the 1915 short story by author Ogai Mori, and a transcribed version of an earlier version, from when it was merely an oral folktale. All told, it's justice done.