starring Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyoko Kagawa, Masao Shimizu
screenplay by Fuji Yahiro, Yoshikata Yoda
directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
by Walter Chaw A little late to the party, I know, but Kenji Mizoguchi's magisterial jidaigeki Sansho the Bailiff is the source material for Hiyao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. Both are initiated by the filmmakers as fairytales, mythologies; and both are initiated within the text by a specific fatal flaw in parental figures. In Sansho, it's hubris when the father, a principled public servant, stands up under an unjust edict and is exiled, leaving his family in peril. In Spirited Away, the parents engage in an endless banquet, indulging their gluttony until they're transformed into literal swine despite the protests of their child. Both films are withering indictments of the cultures that produced them, and each is opened to a greater depth of interpretation by an appreciation of the other. Coming here from the Miyazaki, it's fruitful to consider why it is the Mizoguchi is named after the villain, the cruel slave-owner who tortures the film's heroes, while the Miyazaki is named for the innocents (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) and the loaded act/word "Kamikakushi," which once referred to abduction by angry gods but has a contemporary implication of sex trafficking. Arguably, Mizoguchi sets up this read of the later text in his own canon, with many of his films addressing the problem of sexual exploitation among the lower class in Japanese history--a problem that persisted through the war years and, some would say, beyond. With its naming, it's possible to infer that the source for the ills in Sansho the Bailiff is too strong a hold on the traditions of an antiquated past; in Spirited Away, it's the frittering away of the future by a generation too solipsistic, too blinkered by its own sense of entitlement, to save itself from obsolescence. See the two films as bookends of a particularly Japanese introspection, equal parts humility and nihilism. (As one of the characters in Sansho the Bailiff sings, "Isn't life a torture?") And in the contemplation of the Mizoguchi, find also an undercurrent of warning, and doom, in the Miyazaki.