Sansho the Bailiff is a 1954 film directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.
It is set in Japan during the Heian period (794-1185). A governor loses his job and is exiled for being too nice to his people—specifically, not drafting them for the emperor's army and not confiscating their crops for taxes. His wife Tamaki and their two children, son Zushio and daughter Anju, are sent off to live with her brother.
Several years pass, long enough for the children to age from elementary-school level to teenagers. Eventually Tamaki attempts to join her husband in exile. They are camping out in the open in the countryside when a miko (a Shinto priestess) offers them shelter, which they gratefully accept.
Only it turns out that the miko is evil. She hands the lot of them over to slavers. The mother is forced to become a courtesan. The story then follows Zushio and Anju, who are sold into slavery, forced to work under brutal conditions on the estate of a lord, which is managed by the merciless Sansho ("bailiff" in this context meaning manager of a lord's estate and holdings).
A decade passes; the siblings age from teenage years to adulthood. Anju has held on to her humanity and compassion despite horrible suffering. Zushio however has given up, submitting to the brutality of life in the slave camp, branding a would-be escapee on Sansho's orders. However, when Anju and Zushio are ordered to drag a sick slave into the forest so she can die, Anju rebels, appeals to her brother's decency, and suggests they escape—and he agrees. But much suffering remains to be played out.
- As You Know: A lot of this in the early going to establish that Tamaki's husband did not dragoon his people into the army and also refused to collect an extortionate rice tax.
- 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 ascend to governor of Tango, outlaws slavery, and has Sansho arrested and exiled, but learns that Anju killed herself protecting him. He proceeds to resign from his position and heads to Sado to track down his mother, who he finds living as a enfeebled, near blind hermit. With nothing else in his life, Zushio simply hugs his mother and tells her that he lived by his father's teachings no matter what.
- 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: Being raised in privilege as the children of a governor is a pretty good deal. But being separated from your father when he's sent into exile, that's bad. Having to leave your brother's house and travel on foot to rejoin your father, that's bad. And then being betrayed by a miko and sold into slavery, that's real bad.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.