Any use of the word "greatest," despite its definitive status as a superlative, almost always implies a degree of vagueness. The broader the claim, the more difficult it is to defend the use of the term. Who is the greatest human being ever? A silly question. Narrow that down to "Who is the greatest baseball player ever?" and at least you can begin a discussion (actually the answer there is easy: it's Babe Ruth, but there are a few pretenders to the title). Narrow it down further: "Who is the greatest shortstop of all-time?" or even "Who is the greatest shortstop of the 1980s?" and the comparison becomes more meaningful.
It is probably useless to claim that any film is the greatest ever made, and the claim is too broad even to generate a useful argument. Refine the terms, however, and you can at least create a launching point for debate. Therefore rather than claiming that Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff" is one of the greatest films ever made or even one of the greatest Japanese films, I will claim simply that its final scene is one of the greatest in film history.
To understand the ending, of course, you need to know the beginning. "Sansho the Bailiff," adapting a well-known story by Ogai Mori, depicts a world of unrelenting cruelty, 11th century Japan in which only a handful of wealthy landowners possess human rights of any kind, or, as the opening credits describe it: "an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings." Everyone else is chattel, to be worked, toyed with and disposed of at the whim of those in power.
Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa) have it relatively easy as kids. Their father Masauji (Masao Shimizu) is a provincial governor beloved by his peasants for his gentle and compassionate rule. Those same qualities are not respect by Masauji's masters, and he is sent into exile. His family is forced into exile as well, though separated from the father. When the story picks up, the mother Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) is leading the now much-older children (now nearing adulthood) to reunite with father after many years apart. Tamaki has always told her children what a great man their father is, and the ebullient children can't wait to see him.
Consider that the "once upon a time" portion of our fairy tale, the part where great promise still lingers, soon to be crushed. In an unbearably cruel scene, the children are taken from Tamaki and sold into slavery; she is taken away by boat to a fate perhaps even worse. The children manage to stay together, and are sold into the service of our title character, Sansho the Bailiff (Eitaro Shindo). Life under Sansho's iron thumb is truly miserable, which makes him a much more popular provincial governor with the big bosses than Masauji ever was. Sansho enjoys free reign to abuse his peasants anyway he sees fit: by branding them, by sending them out into the woods to die when they get sick, and so on. Just as long as he collects revenues.
At this point you might expect a tale of two innocent souls tormented to their breaking point, but here Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda offer an intriguing twist on the Mori tale. Anju adapts by working hard and keeping out of trouble. Zushio, however, adapts by becoming strong and by pleasing his bosses. He performs some of the dirtiest jobs in the village, including meting out punishment to his fellow slaves in order to curry favor with Sansho and his cronies. Just when Zushio appears to have forgotten his father's teachings of compassion, he is saved, partly by his sister's grace and selflessness.
[WARNING: I now plan to spoil the ending for you. It's a fifty year old movie. Deal with it.]
Zushio's life as a free man (or what passes for a free man in 11th century Japan) is just as troubled as his life as a slave, but now he sees the world more clearly, through his father's eyes. Zushio becomes a provincial governor in his own right, but sets aside the mantle of power almost as soon as he receives it. He has only one goal in mind, to find his mother. It seems impossible that Tamaki could have survived, and even if she had, his chances of finding her seem infinitesimal. In such a dark world, a world before men had yet "awakened", in a story in which Zushio endures one tragedy after another, there is no reason to expect a happy ending. And yet in this film where, in an inversion of the Hollywood formula, the sad ending would have been the easy way out, we witness a genuine miracle.
As the dogged Zushio's zeroes in on his mother's last known whereabouts, his final hope is dashed when he is told her village was wiped out by a tsunami. It's over. And just then he hears a sad, pain-filled, warbling voice sing out: "Zushio, how I long for you. My Anju, fly away." It is a song he has heard before in childhood, and later whispered as a rumor. He sees a blind, old woman sitting on the beach, barely aware of her surroundings. He listens to her for a while then drops to his knees, sobbing. "It is I, Zushio." She believes him to be an evil spirit sent to torment her even more in a life that has been filled only with torture. He finally convinces her, and with a few lies promises her the happiness she has been denied since the moment her children were torn from her.
It is perhaps the single most devastating scene I have ever watched. In the final shot, the camera pulls back a great distance and from a high angle to show the tiny mother and son embracing in a desolate landscape, and it is the sort of image that lingers in the mind forever. If you are not moved to tears by it, even on multiple viewings, I cannot hazard a guess as to what is wrong with you.
Is it one of the greatest endings of all time? The final moments of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Stroszek" as well as a few of Bresson's films ("Pickpocket" springs to mind) rival it as far as I am concerned. I know that if this scene alone was the only notable feature of the film, "Sansho the Bailiff" would still be a masterpiece. Fortunately, the rest of the movie holds up pretty well in its own right.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Like many recent Criterion full-screen releases, the image is picture-boxed, meaning that some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right as well as the top and bottom. As for the transfer itself, it is perfect. As a former English professor told me, something is either perfect or it is not (like it is unique or not) and the word requires no other qualifiers. Therefore I will leave it at that: perfect.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
I would have expected a deluxe 2-disc treatment from Criterion for such a magnificent film, but the single disc still offers some useful bonuses. The best is the commentary track by Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles, who focuses just as much on the Ogai Mori source material as on the film.
The rest of the extras consist of three interviews, with actress Kyoko Kagawa (10 min.), critic and historian Tadao Sata (24 min.) and Tokuzo Tanaka (15 min) who serves as first assistant director to Mizoguchi.
The hefty insert booklet begins with an essay by professor Mark Le Fanu, but the bulk consists of translated versions of the "Sansho" story including the Ogai Mori tale that Mizoguchi and Yoda adapted, and a very different version titled "An Account of the Life of the Deity of Mount Ikawi" which focuses more on Anju.
Now I will reverse field, and make the claim I refused to before. "Sansho the Bailiff" is one of the greatest films ever made, and the greatest Japanese film that I have ever seen (though this comes with the qualification that I have many more Japanese films to see in my lifetime.) We could ask for a few more extras, maybe a "definitive" documentary or two, but Criterion's flawless presentation more than does justice to Mizoguchi's masterwork.