Plot: What’s it about?
In his district of control, the governor of Tango is beloved, known as a man of honor, respect, and fairness. In a world where power often goes hand in hand with corruption, he is a rare example of what a good man can do in office. He puts his people before himself, even if it means he faces dire consequences. When word comes down that he must send more men into battle, he refuses, as the farms are already understaffed. If he sends more men, it would have a terrible impact on his people and their land. While his decision is honorable, it is met with harsh punishment and he is forced into exile. Years later when his wife Tamaki (Kinoyu Tanaka) seeks to take her family and reunite the family, she has to travel a dangerous path. What seems to be kindness from a stranger turns out to be anything but, as the family is sold into slavery. A decade soon passes and the governor’s son has forgotten the honor of his father, as he has become abusive and sadistic. Is there any hope left for this family to be one once again, or is there only darkness ahead for them all?
This movie is considered a masterpiece in some circles, but don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Sansho the Bailiff. The film wasn’t released in the United States until over a decade after its production and with no television broadcasts and a low profile home video release, it has remained quite hidden. But now Criterion has blown the lid off Sansho the Bailiff, doing the movie justice in this superb edition. Criterion has even included an eighty page booklet, which has two versions of the story that inspired the movie, which adds a lot to the presentation. As you’d expect from a beloved folktale foundation, the narrative here is strong and when combined with the well crafted visuals, the result is a film that really resonates. The emotions run high, but not because of melodrama, instead the characters are so well developed, we can’t help but invest in them. I am a cynical person, but even I was hoping against hope for the resolution to be a positive one. Sansho the Bailiff is just a fantastic movie and one that holds up to multiple viewings, so I give Criterion’s release a very high recommendation.
Video: How does it look?
Sansho the Bailiff is presented in full frame, as intended. This image has been restored & remastered and it shows, as this is a stunning visual presentation. The visual impact is vital to this picture, as the pictures tell part of the story also, as is the case with most Kurosawa flicks. The gorgeous black & white photography shines here, very sharp and well detailed, I simply can’t believe this film was made in 1954, not by looking at this transfer. The contrast is always smooth and very stark, some of the best black & white images I’ve seen on DVD. I think fans will be thrilled to no end and Criterion has outdone themselves with this incredible treatment.
Audio: How does it sound?
The original Japanese soundtrack is preserved here, via a mono option that has been restored to enhance the experience. In other words, although the material is over fifty years old, you won’t hear a lot of age related defects. The music is well done in this mix, as it has more life than expected, while sound effects remain natural and low key in scope. I heard no troubles with dialogue either, as vocals were consistently clean and crisp, no worries there. This disc also includes new and improved, optional English subtitles, in case you aren’t fluent in Japanese.
Supplements: What are the extras?
An audio commentary kicks off the extras, as Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles sits down to talk about the movie. I wasn’t too taken with his session, but he does have some good information to share. He is a literature professor, so he talks about the story a lot, especially in how it was changed from the original source. He spends a good amount of time either silent or narrating however, which detracts from the track’s value. You can also check out some new interviews, including a ten minute piece with actress Kyoko Kagawa.