Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On Hiatus

Daffy Duck struggles with a rewrite
in The Scarlet Pumpernickel (1950).

(Cross-posted in Tour America’s Treasures…)

With apologies for the unexplained radio silence, I’ve been enjoying a temporary hiatus from both my blogs, Tour America’s Treasures and 21 Essays.

During this dormant period, I’ve been devoting much of my free time to one more rewrite on The Poem Beasts, the young adult fantasy novel that my son and I wrote several years ago.  A year ago, I published several poems from the novel on 21 Essays where they’ve received a fair amount of attention and praise.  My goal is to have the next draft of The Poem Beasts completed by the end of January 2014.

I hope to return to regular posting of a restructured Tour America’s Treasures in February.  At that time, I anticipate making some significant changes to the blog in order to accomplish the original goal:  to cover more than 1,300 sites in six years.  At the current rate of publication, it would be more like sixty years…

After Tour America’s Treasures returns to steady production, I’ll turn my attention to reviving 21 Essays.

© 2013 Lee Price

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Maurice Sendak's Gracious Farewell

Max prepares to depart.
Maurice Sendak designed this opera production of
Where the Wild Things Are for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Several weeks ago, I added a Maurice Sendak quote to the right column of this blog: 

“There’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging—that I am in love with the world.”

I hope I can say something similar when I’m 83.  More than anything, I want to continue falling ever more deeply in love with the world.

The quote comes from an interview that Terry Gross conducted with the beloved children’s author and illustrator on Fresh Air, a popular National Public Radio program.  Almost more an intimate talk with a friend than a standard interview, Sendak openly acknowledged his failing health and advancing age, taking the opportunity to say goodbye to his host with an eloquence that is deeply moving.

Unable to come to the studio, Sendak spoke from his home, mentioning in passing that even walking has become difficult.  He’s confined in space, looking out the window at the trees—but he even finds joy in this.

“And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old.  They're beautiful.  And you see I can see how beautiful they are.  I can take time to see how beautiful they are.

“It is a blessing to get old.”

But side-by-side with the blessing is the overwhelming melancholy of loss.  It’s his King Lear interview, as he strives to express the fragility, irrationality, and comedy of life.  The knowledge of death informs the interview.  He wears his vulnerability bravely.

While I respect Sendak’s atheism, his last words of the interview sound like a blessing—a benediction from the heart:

“I wish you all good things.  Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

This is my 200th entry on 21 Essays.  I hope to keep it going for at least thirty more years, until I’m turning 83 and considering a series on the beautiful maples outside my window.

If you haven’t heard it, enjoy the interview!  And have tissues handy.  Here’s a link to the full 18-minute interview at the NPR site (click on “Listen to the story.”).

And here’s a sweet tribute to the interview by Christoph Niemann, creatively illustrating the last five minutes of the interview:



© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Supreme Duck Artistry of Carl Barks


Guest contributor:  Waldemar Hepstein is an artist for No Comprendo Press, a publisher of alternative comics.  Hepstein’s work has appeared in the magazine Fidus and is collected in albums such as 'Snork.’



Carl Barks: Tortured Artist, Master Comedian

Carl Barks at the 1982
San Diego Comic Con.
Photo by Alan Light.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
For golden age comic book buffs, Carl Barks (1901-2000) is the legendary “Good Duck Artist,” a moniker that took hold long before his name became publicly known.  In 1950, when the publishers briefly took him off his regular spot at Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories because they wanted him to concentrate on the longer stories, readers complained and demanded that the anonymous “good artist” be re-installed to do his monthly 10-page Donald Duck lead-in story.

Barks, who wrote and illustrated comic book stories about the Disney ducks from 1942 to 1966, agreed with critics that his most creative period was around 1950.  As is sometimes the case with artists, inspiration seemed to be especially strong in a period of great personal stress and turmoil.  This was the time when Barks was struggling in a rapidly deteriorating relationship with an alcoholic wife.  He once stated that he could feel his creative juices flowing as the whiskey bottles hurled at him by his wife flew by his head.

From Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, November 1951:
The Terror of the Beagle Boys by Carl Barks.

It was during the period of their divorce that Barks created some of his most beloved stories and famous characters:  Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, and Gyro Gearloose.  The circulation of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories also peaked at this time, exceeding three million, making it the all-time best-selling comic book title in the United States.  Let’s take a closer look at one of Barks’ classic short stories, The Terror of the Beagle Boys, from the November 1951 issue (#134) which introduced the Beagle Boys.

It’s an atypical story in some ways, being much slighter on plot than Barks’ other stories from the period and unexpectedly veering into sheer surrealism.  Almost entirely a two-duck act, it brings to the fore Barks’ mastery in “directing” his character comedians:  Both Donald and Uncle Scrooge turn in Oscar-worthy performances in this one.

The story opens in Scrooge’s main office in his famed money bin (incidentally, making its premiere appearance in this story).  Donald is employed by Scrooge as a professional worrier, required to walk around the office moaning and wailing and tearing his hair.  However, neither of them can recall what they were supposed to worry about until an ancient messenger boy (addressed by old Scrooge as “Sonny”) delivers a message from the police that the fearsome Beagle gang are on the loose.

A hilarious sequence follows in which the two ducks—over several pages—struggle to keep awake as they guard the money bin with an old cannon and try to think up ways to foil the crooks.  Barks must have enjoyed drawing scenes like these;  several other stories also center on drowsy ducks required to stay awake for prolonged periods.  Finally Donald hits upon the idea of rigging a Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption to the cannon so it will set itself off when the door is opened.

The audacious finale has Scrooge accidentally setting off the mechanism, whereupon the cannon ball flies through several buildings before hitting a mattress factory, where it bounces off the mattresses, now taking the exact same course in reverse.  Finally it cracks open the walls of Scrooge’s money bin, unleashing an avalanche of cash into the street where the Beagle Boys happily scoop it up.

None of the other Disney comic book artists ever rivaled Barks’ remarkable ability to make his characters live and breathe, or matched the elegant timing he exhibited in telling his stories.  Part of the reason may be Barks’ previous experience in the Disney animation department.  As part of the original Duck team in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he had worked not only as gag writer and co-scenarist, but for all intents and purposes he served as co-director of some of the very best Donald Duck cartoons, including such titles as Good Scouts, Donald’s Snow Fight and Timber.

In addition, Barks received a very rare measure of respect from his publisher. Respectful of his special talent, they largely trusted him to script and draw his stories with a minimum of editorial interference—a set-up that would be almost unthinkable today, especially with Disney.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: "Only a
Poor Old Man"
 by Carl Barks,
Vol. 12 in the Fantagraphics series.
Along with his fanciful adventures set in faraway places, Barks, who by many accounts could be quite caustic and cynical, took delight in smuggling in quite a bit of social satire.  It’s not as surprising as it may seem at first that Carl Barks and Robert Crumb, the most famous of the new wave of “underground” cartoonists, were in fact mutual admirers.

A new books series from Fantagraphics recaptures the world of Carl Barks, a fitting place to start for any of you lucky devils who are just discovering the supreme duck artistry of Carl Barks.

Waldemar Hepstein

Friday, August 2, 2013

On "Revenge" by Taha Muhammad Ali


Taha Muhammad Ali.
A couple of years ago, I introduced my son Terry to one of my favorite poems, “Revenge” by Taha Muhammad Ali (translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin).  This winter, Terry wrote an excellent essay on the poem for one of his college classes and I asked him if I could share it here:

Guest contributor:  Terry Price

Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) wrote the poem “Revenge” in an unrhymed form mostly consisting of short lines, punching hard with each word.  The tone and structure of the poem’s opening constitute a psychological trick, leading the reader to expect a very different outcome than the ultimate one.  There is an undercurrent of anger through much of the poem, certainly. However, the tricky pathway leads instead to a discussion on the nature of violence that is challenging and unexpectedly deep.

The poem begins by stating that sometimes the speaker wishes he could retaliate against the one who harmed his family by striking back in violence—by either killing his foe or being killed by him in the attempt.  He suggests that either result would bring some sort of peace, leading the reader to expect a poem about the need for catharsis through redemptive violence, a central myth of our time.  Yet even his opening line, though it contains only four words, opens the potential for a different approach through a deliberate mid-line pause.

But in the second stanza the poem takes an unexpected turn.  This subtle maneuver by Ali creates a new pathway to the end, where the full meaning and power of the power of the poem finally becomes clear.  Ali begins to dismantle the line of thought that the first stanza may have tricked us into accepting, an approach to life built around the angry depersonalization of others.  In the second stanza, Ali grants the possibility that maybe the one he hates is also loved.

This admission triggers a long list, beginning with the parents who would be harmed by the death of their son.  Then it widens out to include siblings, a spouse, children, and even friends.  The poem increasingly restricts our ability to dehumanize, as the speaker recognizes that his foe also possesses the ability to love and form meaningful relationships.

Ali’s final stanza offers a parting twist.  He breaks off from his contemplative widening of the net to describe what he would do under a very different circumstance—if his foe had no other meaningful connections.  He takes the opportunity to mirror previous parts of the poem, offering a short list that negates all the people previously imagined, stating them now as non-existences.

And he reaches a conclusion that is an unexpected subversion of how society usually views the nature of revenge.  The speaker decides that violence could not add any more suffering to the life of one so cut off from others.  As the act of killing would only ease the pain of loneliness, the speaker’s inaction is justified.  He declines to offer the escape of death to a man living without love.  While the desire for revenge still exists, his revenge is to let the man live.  This movement ingeniously reaffirms the validity of the passionate anger of the first verse while not forgetting the humanity that the poem’s speaker shares with his foe.



Enjoy “Revenge”…
Read “Revenge” at Common Ground News Service

© 2013 Lee Price

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Summer Vacation 2013

Visiting the Field Museum of
Natural History with a friend.

Of the ten essay series published here so far…

Six have been on favorite movies:
            Der Golem (1920)
            Blackmail (1929)
            King Kong (1933)
            Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century (1953)
            Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
            Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Three have been on literature:
            O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
            The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel
            “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Christina Rossetti

One has been on graphic art:

The essays have used these jumping-off places to explore religion, science, and history.  Even when they may not appear to be intensely personal, they are.

Visitation to 21 Essays is slow but steady.  Old posts on King Kong and Chuck Jones are more popular than new ones on Abraham Joshua Heschel and Kenji Mizoguchi, but that’s not a surprise.  Frankly, it would be a surprise to see Kenji Mizoguchi go viral.  I suspect that the series on The Sabbath and Sansho the Bailiff will continue to steadily attract readers, just like the old series on Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” continues to draw the occasional viewer (perhaps even getting a spike of attention come Christmas).

There’s a rumor that a new “For the Love of Film” blogathon may be looming.  If so, I hope to participate with an appropriate series.  If not, I probably won’t be doing a major series again until October.

In the meantime, I hope to post sporadically, while enjoying a little break.  Doing a series is the equivalent of taking a college course—and I’m trying hard to consistently publish “A” level work on the blog while maintaining a full-time regular job and a healthy family life.

Pleased as I am with the series themselves, I’m still looking for a better framework for them.  I switched to an emphasis on arbitrarily chosen years in January, but that approach has been too confining to make me happy.  I’ll continue to tinker.

Happy Summer!

© 2013 Lee Price

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: Compassion



Sansho-blogging, 
essay 6 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Calligraphy: Kannon;
Always, Pray to the
Bodhisattva Kannon,
Hakuin Ekaku
(Japan, 1685-1768),
hanging scroll.
From the collection of the
Los Angeles County
Museum of Art.

Sansho the Bailiff:  Introduction to this Essay Series

A profound meditation on compassion and mercy, Sansho the Bailiff (1954) builds its power through the profound ethical wisdom of its narrative and the beauty and power of its visual expression.  The images embody the message.

Cruelty and mercy evenly divide this world.  Although the societal conventions of 1954 may have somewhat restrained the graphic illustration of torture and cruelty, several scenes painfully suggest the story’s horrific content—the brandings and mutilations.  For this series of six essays on Sansho the Bailiff, I’m opting to concentrate on the answering scenes of compassion.

For each entry, there will be a two-pronged focus, first on the ethics of Sansho the Bailiff and second on visual analysis of targeted scenes.


The Ethics of Sansho the Bailiff:  Compassion

Sansho the Bailiff tells the story of the children Zushiô and Anju.  Thanks to the sacrifice of his sister Anju, Zushiô escapes the slave compound of Sanshô the Bailiff and is reunited with his mother Tamaki.  The movie opens with Zushiô and closes with him.  Therefore the movie might be more reasonably, and informatively, called:

Zushiô and Anju or Anju and Zushiô or
Zushiô the Governor or Citizen Zushiô or even
Zushiô Unchained.

Revisiting the book Figures Traced in Light by acclaimed film theorist David Bordwell, I was delighted to see that he addresses one of the most puzzling mysteries of Sansho the Bailiff, namely:

“Why is it (the movie) named after him (Sanshô)? I always ask my classes.  Isn’t it a bit like changing the title of Othello to Iago?  My own view is that for Mizoguchi the world we live in, unhappily for us, belongs to its bailiffs.”

This is my view, too.  Sanshô is mean, vicious, and sycophantic, but he’s not a rare breed.  His kind still walks among us.  I read a quote today from the poet Philip Larkin that reminded me of Sanshô:

“Most people, I’m convinced, don’t think about life at all. They grab what they think they want and the subsequent consequences keep them busy in an endless chain till they’re carried out feet first.”

Sansho with a
branding iron.
Sanshô is a first-rate grabber of things he wants.  In his world, greed is the primary mover.  When he presents a chest of valuables to a royal envoy, he assumes that wealth can buy happiness.  The envoy responds just as expected—he wants wealth and power, too.  This is the world according to Sanshô.  As Bordwell says, “the world we live in… belongs to its bailiffs.”

But remember that Sanshô lives within the same prison walls that enclose his slaves.  They’re all inside together.  Freedom is on the other side.  It’s not easy to cross over and is it even worth the risk?  Life is harsh on the other side as well.

Our last view of Sansho, trussed up and soon to be
sent into exile.

At the conclusion of Sansho the Bailiff, we are left with several worlds to contemplate.  There’s the ego-driven world of Sanshô.  Contrasting with that, there’s the benevolent world of Zushiô’s father Masauji, who believes all people should be treated with mercy and compassion.  Zushiô returns to his father’s path, embracing the ideals that his father and sister lived and died for.  Neither ends well:  Masauji is sent into exile and the movie closes with Zushiô in poverty.  This is the opposite of American prosperity theology where goodness is rewarded by material wealth.  As the end title appears on the screen, this is what we’re left to grapple with—a choice to cast our lot with either Sanshô’s materialist world or the impractical ethical idealism of Zushiô’s father.  We’ve seen that both roads can lead to unhappiness and exile.

Most of us are rarely presented with even that clear a choice.  There’s a third way, perhaps the easiest way, where one maneuvers through life disengaged from the work of either ambition or mercy.  The final crane shot carries the viewer away from the love of Zushiô and Tamaki and leaves us instead with a seaweed gatherer, calmly doing his job, oblivious of the scene taking place nearby.  It’s a haunting closing image that reminds me of the concluding stanza of W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The seaweed gatherer is like the ploughman.  His life goes on—he has work of his own to do—even as something amazing happens just yards away.

The seaweed gatherer toiling on the shore.

Compassion Expressed in Images

“Is the sea safe?”

Tamaki’s question is really beside the point.  The sea is unavoidable, inescapable.

In Sansho the Bailiff, seas and lakes are emphatically not safe—they are strongly associated with separation and death.  Yet the movie also presents these bodies of water as the settings for healing and mourning.  They appear primal, suggesting a world outside of time.  In the essay “The Ghost Princess and the Seaweed Gatherer,” film critic Robin Wood points out the difficulty of assigning easy symbolic meanings to the imagery in Sansho the Bailiff:

“Mizoguchi never imposes symbolism on the action.  Accordingly, the significance of the recurrent imagery is to be interpreted flexibly, in relation to the events with which it is linked;  as the film progresses, it accumulates complex emotional overtones from the shifting juxtapositions, until by the end the visual presence of the sea makes emotionally present for us all the past events with which fire and water have been associated, becoming one of the means by which Mizoguchi deepens and intensifies our response to the last scene as the point to which every impulse in the film has moved.”

 Above: A kidnapping at sea.
Below: A lament by the sea.
The children Zushiô and Anju are separated from their mother Tamaki in a harrowing abduction scene in which Ubatake, the family servant, drowns.  Later, Tamaki runs to the sea in a hopeless attempt to escape from her life on Sado Island, only to be left crippled and crying for her lost children on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Anju dies in a lake.  As if in a series of pilgrimages, Zushiô returns to each member of the family in the second half of the movie.  In each case, a body of water is positioned as an important element within the frame.  Zushiô visits his father’s grave, located at the top of a hill with the sea in the background.  He visits the lake where his sister took her life.  And he meets his mother in a cove by the sea.

Zushio's pilgrimages to father, sister, and mother.
Zushio's descent to the cove,
with a giant tree in the foreground
and the sea in the background.
In the final scene, the sun is nearing the horizon as Zushiô reaches the end of his quest.  He enters a landscape that appears timeless, passing giant trees and entering a picturesque cove, austere and sheltered from the world.  Life and death go unnoticed in this place—a tsunami struck here two years previous, but no one seems to know the names or the number of the dead.  For another movie equivalent of the trees, think of the Sequoias in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)… and for the cove, both the stretch of beach where astronaut Taylor pounds the sand in Planet of the Apes (1968) and the beach where Anthony Quinn breaks down at the end of La Strada (1954).  Quests often end at the shoreline.

Looking closely at that last scene in Sansho the Bailiff, the first shot—following Zushiô on his descent into the cove—is introductory.  Then the second shot serves as the real beginning of the final sequence.  This is the shot that will be reversed to close the movie, forming a sublime set of bookends enclosing one of the most moving scenes ever filmed.  The opening bookend is a crane shot that ascends to a significant height, finally uniting Zushiô and Tamaki within the frame.  Then, following eight medium shots and close-ups that take the viewer through the heart-rending details of their reunion, Mizoguchi retreats to a closing crane shot that leaves Zushiô and Tamaki, now clinging to each other with nothing left to say, and pans left to end on a final image of the steadily-working seaweed gatherer and the eternal sea.


Above:  Zushio and Tamaki hug in the penultimate shot.
Below:  Cut to a crane shot that pans left to return to
the image of the seaweed gatherer still at work.

Reference Sources

Personal Views: Explorations in Film by Robin Wood
Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato
“Sanshô dayû and the Overthrow of History” by Carole Cavanaugh, essay included with Criterion DVD
“Mizo Dayû” by Dudley Andrew, essay included with Criterion DVD
Criterion DVD commentary by Jeffrey Angles

Watch Sansho the Bailiff
Purchase Sansho the Bailiff through The Criterion CollectionAmazon, or Barnes and Noble
Rent Sansho the Bailiff at Netflix or other rental service

© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, July 5, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff: Forgiveness



Sansho-blogging, 
essay 5 of 6 on the film
Sansho the Bailiff (1954)


Kannon Shrine at Kiyo Falls,
Sakanoshita, Tokaido.
Katsuoshika Hokusai,
Japan, circa 1833-34,
color woodblock print.
From the collection of the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Sansho the Bailiff:  Introduction to this Essay Series

A profound meditation on compassion and mercy, Sansho the Bailiff (1954) builds its power through the profound ethical wisdom of its narrative and the beauty and power of its visual expression.

For each of these six entries, there will be a two-pronged focus, first on the ethics of Sansho the Bailiff and second on visual analysis of targeted scenes.

The Ethics of Sansho the Bailiff:  Forgiveness

“One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies.  Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties.  For the offender, they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore.  The result of the apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.”
 Aaron Lazare
On Apology

There are three scenes in Sansho the Bailiff that can reduce me to tears.  Two of them are obvious.  Anju’s suicide and Zushiô’s climactic reunion with his mother are widely acknowledged as emotional powerhouses.

But there’s a third scene that I find nearly as powerful and it’s received comparatively little attention.  This is the short but devastating scene where Zushiô voluntarily humbles himself and begs for forgiveness:

Zushiô has been appointed governor of the province.  Remarkably self-composed, he asserts himself within Sanshô’s compound, orders Sanshô taken prisoner, and then confidently walks out of the manor to speak to the slaves.  His voice breaking with emotion, Zushiô declares that all slaves are now free, with a choice to either leave or remain and work for fair wages.  Zushiô pauses, seeing a familiar face:  Nio, an old man whom he once branded.

Zushiô kneels in front of Nio, who studies his face and then recognizes him.  The brand is still clear on Nio’s forehead.  Zushiô says:  “My sins in branding you can never be erased.  But I ask you to let this (the declaration that frees the slaves) make up for part of it.”

Above: Zushio brands Nio, with Sansho
in the background, indicating approval.
Below: Tamaki is tortured offscreen as
her master watches, indicating approval.
Zushiô’s apology refers back to the scene where he branded Nio at the request of Sanshô.  The branding was the rock bottom of Zushiô’s character arc.  To make it even more appalling, Zushiô’s cruelty is linked to a subsequent scene where his mother Tamaki, living as a courtesan on the far-away island of Sado, is brutally punished by her owner by having her Achilles tendon cut to prevent her from further attempts at escape.  In a movie where family relations are paramount, Zushiô’s act is doubly condemned by its association with a horrifying punishment exacted against his mother.  From this low point, the story documents the redemption of Zushiô, fueled largely by the self-sacrificing act of his sister Anju.

Returning to his family’s ethics, Zushiô seeks redemption through his political actions as governor by a morally just prohibition of slavery in his province.  But Zushiô cannot find redemption simply through a well-meaning political act.  He has to directly confront his past actions in order to move ahead with his own life.  He must kneel and apologize.  This act follows the definition of apology set forth by Aaron Lazar, former Chancellor and Dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in his book On Apology:

“(The word) ‘apology’ refers to an encounter between two parties in which one party, the offender, acknowledges responsibility for an offense or grievance, and expresses regret or remorse to a second party, the aggrieved.”

The personal encounter is necessary.  Zushiô, the offender, must accept responsibility and ask for remorse from Nio, the aggrieved.  The scene is even more moving for its stress on the difference in social status between the two.  The governor kneels and begs forgiveness of the slave.

Then Zushiô stands and asks what has become of his sister.  As he learns the tragic news of Anju’s death, he realizes that his redemption is not yet complete.  The emotionally-wrenching apology is only one step along the hard road that he must follow.

The scene immediately following the forgiveness scene:
Zushio visits the lake where his sister took her life.

Forgiveness Expressed in Images

In interviews, director Kenji Mizoguchi promoted his cinematic vision of one-shot/one-scene.  He asserted that a moving camera should be able to capture all necessary details and build the appropriate emotional climate from the beginning to the end of a scene.  No cutting between shots should be necessary.  In film language, this approach privileges mise-en-scène (design and arrangement within the frame) over montage (editing from one shot to the next).

In practice, Mizoguchi rarely held to the ideal that he preached.  While the key scenes in his movies take strong advantage of crane shots, tracks, pans, and tilts, he nevertheless usually cuts to individual shots.  And the scenes are typically more powerful for his intelligent, though limited, use of montage.

Zushio descends into the
crowd of Sansho's slaves.
The forgiveness scene in Sansho the Bailiff approaches his one-shot/one-scene ideal.  Starting at the moment when Zushiô sweeps out of Sanshô’s manor, the scene consists of only two shots.  The one cut comes in the middle and is so smoothly handled that the scene could easily be recalled as a single take.

The scene begins with an overhead exterior shot of Zushiô grandly exiting Sanshô’s manor and walking down the steps into a crowd of slaves.  Zushiô’s bright ceremonial clothes brilliantly contrast with the drab and ragged clothing of the slaves.  As he moves toward the camera, the camera keeps Zushiô centered in the action while slowly craning lower to finally settle into an eye-level perspective.  This visual approach establishes Zushiô’s political control over the situation, even as he delivers his speech with evident emotion.  He dominates the shot, establishing him as a formidable figure—to a much greater degree than Sanshô has ever been privileged in a shot.

Cut to…

The old slave Nio, the brand on his forehead fully visible.

Zushiô’s perspective, looking down upon Nio, the old slave he once branded on the forehead.  As Zushiô kneels, he re-enters the frame.  For their brief dialogue, Zushiô is filmed from behind (echoing the earlier scene where he humbly listened to his father’s teachings).  Seen in closeup, Nio becomes the focus of the viewer’s attention.  Their shared humanity is emphasized, both through the visual composition and Zushiô’s public apology.

When Zushiô stands, the camera rises with him (via a tracking crane movement), following him as he retraces his steps back through the crowd.  As he approaches a group of women, the camera moves ahead of Zushiô to create a new composition.  Instead of the primary focus upon Zushiô, he now shares the frame with Kayano, who shares the news of Anju’s death.

The camera moves to follow Zushio as he makes his way
back through the crowd...
Kayano answers his question,
revealing Anju's fate.

It’s intimidating to consider the directorial mastery necessary to organize a remarkable scene like this.  Each of the three actors deliver performances that sear into the memory.  Two of these actors are separated by a considerable distance, only united by the movement of the camera.  Linking the movement and serving as the center of the narrative, the actor Yoshiaki Hanayagi who plays Zushiô must convey a strength of character that the viewer has not previously seen in his character.  He pulls it off beautifully.  Meanwhile, Mizoguchi must direct and choreograph the unruly crowd, keeping their actions believable.  The moving camera must capture Zushiô’s power and status as governor and then just as effectively convey moments of intimate confession.   In over a century of filmmaking spread across hundreds of countries, only a few dozen directors have shown a comparable mastery.  This one scene is like a film school in miniature.

1954 Japanese poster for
Sansho the Bailiff.

Reference Sources

Personal Views: Explorations in Film by Robin Wood
Kenji Mizoguchi and the Art of Japanese Cinema by Tadao Sato
“Sanshô dayû and the Overthrow of History” by Carole Cavanaugh, essay included with Criterion DVD
“Mizo Dayû” by Dudley Andrew, essay included with Criterion DVD
Criterion DVD commentary by Jeffrey Angles

Watch Sansho the Bailiff
Purchase Sansho the Bailiff through The Criterion CollectionAmazon, or Barnes and Noble
Rent Sansho the Bailiff at Netflix or other rental service

© 2013 Lee Price