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July 26, 2007

DVD Journal: "Sansho the Bailiff"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


I wrote recently about a new Criterion DVD of several previously hard-to-find Chris Marker movies. Another new Criterion disc is worth paying attention to as well: Kenzo Mizoguchi's 1954 "Sansho the Bailiff."

By contrast to the informal, handmade "Sans Soleil," "Sansho" is a lush, full-dress, fictional period tale. Part magical fable and part popular epic, it's enchanted yet harsh, and not in the least cartoony. It's rather like a late Shakespeare play, only coming out of that strange folklore-and-abstraction Japanese tradition.

A quick context-setting note: In the old days of Great Movies, Mizoguchi was known as one of the Three Geniuses of the Japanese cinema. Kurosawa was extraversion and action; Ozu was Zen stillness; and Mizoguchi made transcendent women's pictures. That still isn't a bad way to characterize the work of these guys.

Though I took instantly to Kurosawa and caught on quickly to Ozu, when I treated myself to a Mizoguchi bender I found many of his movies hard to take. Despite the beauties of his lighting, his actresses, and his tracking shots, Mizoguchi was drawn to sad stories of female degradation that I often found tedious. The masochism and weepiness in many of his pictures can get mighty thick.

But, but ... then there's "Ugetsu" and "Sansho," for my money two of the most moving of all films. "Ugetsu" -- also available on Criterion -- is set during some medieval civil wars, and concerns a pair of brothers whose ambitions cause havoc: It's part war epic, part ghost story, and pure magic. "Sansho" tells the tale of a family that has been arbitrarily broken-up. As in "Ugetsu," Mizoguchi gives the medium the kind of complete workout that such other masters as Hitchcock and Welles do, but with his own distinctive delicate / magnificent touch.

It has been many years since I've watched "Ugetsu" and "Sansho," so I won't embarrass myself by trying to be too specific in my praise. But I'm going to treat myself to this little one-sentence rhapsody: These two films -- both poetic and operatic -- can park themselves in your brain like dreams you're unable to forget. Hmmm: Pre-digital cinema history itself is starting to feel like a beautiful, hard-to-shake dream, isn't it?

What a lovely world it would be if only Criterion would charge a reasonable price for their discs, no? Maybe that's why God created Netflix.



posted by Michael at July 26, 2007


Criterion recently started the Eclipse label, which offers "a selection of lost, forgotten or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions." They're still fairly pricey as DVDs go, but you do get several movies per set. I've got my eye on their next release, a collection of three early Sam Fuller films for $49.95.

Posted by: Vince on July 26, 2007 3:17 PM

Mizoguchi = God.

No, scratch that.

Mizoguchi > God.

That is all I have to say.

Posted by: Brian on July 26, 2007 5:34 PM

I didn't much like Sansho or Ugetsu, but wanted to suggest a couple other Mizoguchi films that I did like: The Life of Oharu and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. Amazing stuff. Alas, they're only available in NA on VHS.

Posted by: Thursday on July 27, 2007 12:40 AM

I recently rented Mikio Naruse's 1960 film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs and found it to be a thoroughly satisfying film, one which I was not previously aware of. It's also issued by Criterion.

While Criterion's prices are higher than those of DVDs coming from the major studios, I'm grateful to be able to discover a film like this in the confort of my home. Purchasing is a non-issue for me anyway. I use Netflix.

Criterion's pricing has always been controversial since they began issuing laserdiscs (I own several of those). Many of the films Crierion issued on laserdisc and now DVD have a very limited commercial appeal. The higher price is somewhat justified by limited demand and other factors. I recently read a long article online on the history of the Voyager Company and Criterion in WIRED which gets into the economics of it all. Overall, I think it is nearly miraculous to be able to own a beautifully transferred DVD of a classsic film for $40 or so. It wasn't so many years ago that you paid that much for a Beta or VHS version and were glad to have that. We're getting spoiled rotten!

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on July 27, 2007 2:16 AM

Criterion discs are 35% off at all the time. That's generally the best place to buy them. Shipping is free if you choose to take advantage of that option.

Posted by: Ron on July 27, 2007 10:22 AM

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