Sansho The Baliff (Mizoguchi, 1954)
One mark of a newbie cinephile is that you tend to think that all world film is alike. That Kurosawa is the same as Ozu is the same as Naruse is the same as Koreeda is the same as Misoguchi. I had heard good things about Mizoguchi’s film, but I had resisted it because my response to Japanese films in the past has been very spotty.
This film is very accessible, and it is easy to follow for those (like me) who tend to get restless without any narrative. While the film is structured more around theme than plot, it is easy enough to keep the characters separate and to understand how their respective stories contribute to the larger theme.
If I had to articulate that theme, I would say the film is about the influence of one man. The plot isn’t so much about Sansho but about his legacy, primarily on his children and particularly on his son. It is about the difficulty of doing the right thing–or, rather, the ease in going along with everyone else in doing the wrong thing.
Plus, the film is a treat to look at visually.