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Sansho the Bailiff (Japanese: 山椒大夫 Sanshō Dayũ') is a 1954 film by Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi. Based on a short story of the same name by Mori Ogai, it tells the story of two aristocratic children sold into slavery. It is often considered one of Mizoguchi's finest films, along with Ugetsu and The Life of Oharu. It bears his trademark interest in freedom, poverty and woman's place in society, and features beautiful images and long and complicated shots. The director of photography for this film was Mizoguchi's regular collaborator Kazuo Miyagawa.
Sansho the Bailiff is a jidai-geki, or historical film, set in the Heian period of feudal Japan. A virtuous governor is banished by a feudal lord to a far-off province. His wife and children are sent to live with her brother. Several years later, the wife, Tamaki, and children, Zushio and Anju, journey to his exiled land, but are tricked on the journey by a hypocritical priestess and sold into slavery and prostitution. The mother and her servant are sold to Sado. The children are sold by slave traders to a manorial estate in which slaves are brutalized, working under horrific conditions and are branded whenever they try to escape. The estate, protected under the Minister of the Right, is administered by the eponymous Sansho, a bailiff (or steward). Sansho's son Taro, the second-in-charge, is a much more humane master, and he convinces the two they must survive in the manor before they can escape to find their father. The children grow to young adulthood at the slave camp. Anju still believes in the teachings of her father, who advocated treating others with humanity, but Zushio has repressed his humanity, becoming one of the overseers who punishes other slaves, in the belief that this is the only way to survive. Anju hears a song from a new slave girl from Sado which mentions her and her brother in the lyrics. This leads her to believe their mother is still alive. She tries to convince Zushio to escape, but he refuses, citing the difficulty and their lack of money. Zushio is ordered to take Namiji, an older woman, out of the slave camp to be left to die in the wilderness due to her sickness. Anju accompanies them, and while they two break branches to provide covering for the dying woman they recall their earlier childhood memories. At this point Zushio changes his mind and asks Anju to escape with him to find their mother. Anju asks him to take Namiji with him, convincing her brother she will stay behind to distract the guards. Zushio promises to return for Anju. However, after Zushio's escape, Anju commits suicide by walking into a lake so that she will not be forced to reveal her brother's whereabouts. After Zushio escapes in the wilderness, he finds his old mentor, Taro - Sansho’s son - at an Imperial temple. Zushio asks Taro to take care of Namiji, who is recovering after being given medicine, so that he can go to Kyoto to appeal to the Chief Advisor on the appalling conditions of slaves. Taro writes him a letter as proof of who he is. Although initially rejecting to see him, the Chief Advisor realizes the truth after seeing a statuette from Zushio. He then tells Zushio that his exiled father died the year before and offers Zushio the post of the governor of Tango, the very province where Sansho's manor is situated in. As Governor of Tango the first thing Zushio does is to order an edict forbidding slavery both on public and private grounds. No one believes he can do this, since Governors have no command over private grounds; although Sansho offers initial resistance, Zushio orders him and his minions arrested, thus freeing the slaves. When he looks for Anju among Sansho's slaves, he finds out his sister has sacrificed herself for his freedom. The manor is burned down by the ex-slaves, while Sansho and his family are exiled. To appease the Ministry for doing something so radical, Zushio resigns immediately afterwards, stating that he has done exactly what he aims to do. Zushio leaves for Sado where he searches for his mother, who is now a courtesan, he believes. After hearing a man states that she has died in a tsunami, he goes to the very beach she is supposed to have died. He finds a blind, decrepit old woman sitting at the beach singing the same song he hears years before. Realizing she is his mother, he reveals to her his identity, but Tamaki assumes he is a trickster until he gives her their statuette. Zushio tells her both Anju and their father have died, and apologizes for not coming for her in the pomp of his governor's post. He tells her he has been true to his father's teachings. The film ends with her poignant acknowledgement.