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Kenji Mizoguchi expertly balances formal beauty, barbaric violence and heartwrenching emotion in this masterwork about an exiled family in medieval Japan that is brutally torn apart.
"[O]ne of those films for whose sake the cinema exists" (Gilbert Adair), Sansho the Bailiff is set in the eleventh century, where a devoted wife (Kinuyo Tanaka, towering) and her two children set out to rejoin the family patriarch in the remote province to which he has been banished. Hoodwinked and captured while en route, the family is dispersed, the wife made a courtesan and the children sold as slaves to a manor house, where they are brutalized by the cruel overseer Sansho (Eitaro Shindo). Rarely did Mizoguchi achieve the balance between barbaric violence and formal beauty that he did here: Kazuo Miyagawa's cinematography, with its awe-inspiring long takes and complex use of background and offscreen space, lends even the most harrowing sequences an extraordinary eloquence. "Kinuyo Tanaka brings a tremulous eloquence to the role of the mother — she's the movie's heart as much as the father is its conscience" (Michael Sragow).