I get poked fun at sometimes for enjoying movies about miserable people and all the terrible things that happen to them. The operative, and incorrect, word is that sentence is "enjoy." Of course I don't like it when Charlotte Gainsbourg does horrific things to her lady business in Antichrist, or when the adorable anime children slowly starve to death in Grave of the Fireflies. It's the profound sense of catharsis that draws me to those movies. You know, that pillar of drama established by some clod named Aristotle way back in the day. I derive no prurient pleasure from suffering. Rather, it's when heavily dramatic narratives resolve in a satisfying way that makes me keep coming back.
Hence, my profound appreciation for Kenji Mizoguchi's crushingly sad and bleak Sansho the Bailiff. This is the story of a well-to-do family who has been brought down by forces out of their control, twisted into an ugly, unrecognizable state, and then mildly, arguably redeemed at the end. It's a film that lives and dies on the empathy we can feel for our fellow human beings, and in the sympathy it elicits when we see just how fragile our own good fortune really is.
In feudal Japan, a beloved government official is ousted from his position and forced to relocate when he refuses to pay a local overlord fealty at the expense of his constituents. His wife and two children - a boy and a girl - set out on a journey to visit him where he has been relocated, far away from their hometown. On the way, the family and their servant are tricked into being separated and the children are sold into slavery. Ten years pass, and the daughter gets wind that her mother is still alive, working as a prostitute in a nearby village. Her brother has become hardened to life, working as the toady of the slave driver, whose name burdens the title of the film. Nevertheless, she convinces him to run away with her. When their escape hinges on only one of them making it, the daughter nobly sacrifices herself to distract from her brother's escape, and then commits suicide in order to avoid torture. The son becomes a respected governor, but immediately squanders his position in order to outlaw slavery, only to find out his sister has already died. Down and out once more, the brother finds his mother by chance, who has gone blind and mad, but is able to recognize him by his face.
I know I just gave away the plot, but sometimes one has to do these things in order to spread awareness of the film. Like with any great movie, it's greatness comes about not from what the director is saying, but how he is saying it. Therein lies the genius of Mizoguchi, who can tell a tragedy like few other film-makers. The best way to encapsulate his style is the genre of poetic realism, in which the events of the story proceed more or less how you would expect them to, but with a flourish, grace and subtlety that set it above a conventional melodrama. Mizoguchi's goal is to depict humanity and the lack thereof, and how it can seem like the world is against you, ultimately it is flesh-and-blood people who are the instruments of our destruction.
One way Mizoguchi avoids sentimentality is through his lack of close-ups. Mizoguchi prefers to shoot from a medium distance almost at all times, containing significant action within the confines of a single shot before he moves on to the next bit of business. His camera tracks his characters as they move through both the natural and man-made world in a way that is reminiscent of the gliding eye of God in The Rules of the Game or in the luminous silent film, Sunrise. The most valuable aspect of Mizoguchi's approach is just how effortlessly universal his stories are, despite their firm grounding in Japanese culture and history. Mizoguchi somehow tells stories that could not have taken place in any other time or place than they do, but nevertheless touch even the most unfamiliar with Japan.