Sansho the Bailiff is a 1954 film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.
During Japan's Heian period (794-1185), a regional governor is removed from his post and exiled for disobeying his superior's orders to increase taxes and conscript peasent farmers into the army. He arranges for his wife Tamaki and their two children, Zushio and Anju, to live with Tamaki's brother. Before he departs, he reminds Zushio that mercy is what makes people human, giving him a statue of a Buddhist icon of mercy as a keepsake and reminder of his teachings.
Several years pass. Tamaki eventually takes Zushio and Anju, now in their early teens, and plans to follow her husband into exile. On their way, they are offered shelter for the night by a miko (a Shinto priestess). However, this turns out to be a trap; the miko hands them over to slavers, and mother and children are separated. Tamaki is sold into prostitution on the island of Sado, while Zushio and Anju are sold to the eponymous bailiff ("bailiff" in this context meaning manager of a lord's estate and holdings), where they are forced to work in brutal and inhumane conditions.
A decade passes; Zushio and Anju, now adults, are still owned by Sansho. Zushio has lost sight of his father's teachings and become one of Sansho's cruel overseers, which troubles Anju deeply. However, when they are ordered to abandon a sick slave to die in the forest, Anju appeals to Zushio's humanity, sugesting they take their fellow slave and escape. Zushio agrees, but their struggles are far from over...
- Antagonist Title: Sansho is not the protagonist, but rather, The Heavy, being a slaver who represents the opposite of the film's Arc Words regarding mercy, as written below.
- As You Know: This is used liberally early on to explain why Tamaki's husband was exiled; he not only wouldn't press people into military service, he also refused to collect an extortionate rice tax. This is also used when he gives Zushio the statue of the Goddess of Mercy, as he explains why it's important and what it represents.
- Arc Words: "Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others."
- Bad Samaritan: The miko who pretends to offer shelter and aid but really sells Tamaki and her children into slavery. (And their one servant gets drowned.)
- Beard of Evil: Sansho.
- Bittersweet Ending: Zushio manages to outlaw slavery in the province of Tengo and has Sansho exiled, freeing hundreds of people from inhumane and barbaric treatment at his hands. He also reunites with his mother, but has to tell her the terrible news that his father and Anju are both dead. Tamaki is blind and crippled after years of slavery, but finds solace in the knowledge that Zushio managed to remain true to his father's teachings and grew up to become a good man.
- Comforting Comforter: Taro's essential decency amidst all the appalling brutality of the slave camp is demonstrated when he covers Zushio and Anju with straw after they go to sleep in the barn.
- Crapsack World: Most of Mizoguchi's films took a very dim view of Japan's feudal past and this was no exception. The film depicts an era where slavery was openly practiced. The opening narration describes the setting as "an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings."
- Dead All Along: Zushio and Anju's father, who Zushio learns from the chief adviser died of illness a year before his escape.
- Destroy the Abusive Home: After becoming governor, Zushio goes back to the manor, has Sansho arrested, and tells the slaves that they are free to do as they will. They burn the whole estate to the ground.
- Flashback: The opening sequence cuts back and forth from Tamaki and the children on the difficult journey back to their husband/father, to flashbacks from earlier where we see the dad lose his job and get sent into exile.
- From Bad to Worse: Zushio and Anju's lives start to go downhill when their father is exiled and they have to go live with their uncle. But things get really terrible when they're separated from their mother and sold into slavery.
- Hate Sink: Sansho is a depicable, cruel slave owner with zero redeeming qualities. Even in a film as bleak as this, his arrest is still deeply satisfying.
- Heroic Suicide: Anju drowns herself to make sure Sansho can't torture her into revealing which way Zushio was headed when he escaped.
- Humans Are Bastards: Zig-zagged. The films Central Theme is based around humanity's ability to commit cruelty to others, but also their capacity to treat them with mercy and compassion. Pointedly, Zushio displays both sides, suppressing his humanity and becoming a ruthless overseer for Sansho, but later becoming a hero who outlaws slavery and risks everything to get Sansho arrested.
- Loved by All: Zushio's father was adored by the common people of his province for treating them humanely and championing their rights, to the point where they almost riot when he's exiled. It's later revealed that he upheld these ideals even in exile, teaching peasants to read and write and helping them out however he could, and that they loved him for it as much as his former subjects did. Even a year after his death, his grave is covered in fresh flowers left by people he helped.
- Made a Slave: The entire plot of the movie.
- Memento MacGuffin: The amulet of the bodhisattva Kannon, an icon of compassion, which Zushio's father gives to him as a reminder to be compassionate and merciful. He holds on to it through all his years as a slave. This eventually gets him an audience with the Chief Advisor at Kyoto—it turns out that the Advisor was the person who originally gave the amulet to Zushio's father. And in the end this is how Zushio proves his identity to his skeptical and nearly blind mother, by letting her handle the amulet.
- Miko: The Shinto priestess, who betrays Tamaki and conspires to send her and her children into slavery.
- Minion with an F in Evil: Tarō, Sansho's son, who is appalled by his father's cruelty. Eventually he leaves the household and becomes a priest.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Zushio and Anju's father gets exiled because he was too merciful on the people.
- Oh, Crap!: Sansho wears a beautiful example of this expression when he realizes that the newly-appointed governor is one of his former slaves.
- Reincarnation: Briefly discussed. When a sick slave is carried away from Sansho's house to be abandoned to die, one of her friends calls out her hope that she'll be born into a rich family in her next life.
- Riches to Rags: Tamaki, Zushio and Anju at the start of the movie.
- Secondary Character Title: Sansho is only in a few scenes; Zushio is the protagonist and the story follows him.
- Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: It certainly is. Captured escapees from Sansho's prison camp are branded on the forehead. Tamaki has her Achilles tendons cut after an escape attempt, so she is permanently lamed. Zushio could have lived a life of ease and comfort as a governor, but instead makes a special point to ban slavery in his province and have Sansho exiled.
- Suicide by Sea: Suicide by lake. But, having encouraged her brother to escape, Anju walks into the lake and drowns herself, to make sure that Sansho and his goons can't torture her into revealing which way her brother went.
- Time Skip: Ten years from the traumatic arrival of the siblings to the manor. They are 23 (Zushio) and 18 (Anju), and Zushio has been brutalized by his suffering as a slave.
- Took a Level in Jerkass: Zushio after the Time Skip becomes a massive asshole who willingly acts as part of Sansho's enforcement, even branding a man, after becoming convinced that such an act is the only way to survive. He gets better after a few interactions with his sister remind him of who he used to be.
- Tragic Hero: Zushio. He almost completely loses his morals in the name of survival, and the moment he starts turning this around, he starts losing what little he has left. His sister helps him escape slavery, at which point he learns that his father died while he was enslaved. He becomes governor and frees all of Sansho's slaves, only to learn that his sister committed suicide so she couldn't be tortured into revealing where he went. He then gives up his position to go find his mother, but she's blind and crippled and initially doesn't even believe he's real.