Ok, so, yeah. It's been some time since I caught this film at a Film Society screening but I did have other pressing business to attend to.
Set in medieval Japan, a local governor is set into exile for standing up for his people. His family is forced out of the house and his wife and children set out to cross the country to reunite with him. However, they're set upon by slavers with the son and daughter (Zushio and Anju) being sent to the compound of the eponymous bailiff. Sansho is a cruel master, looking like an angry balding porcupine, whose own son helps the two new young slaves to survive. The brother and sister adopt new names and survive a grueling life under the "care" of Sansho. Years pass - the two siblings are now young adults. Anju is still hopeful they will one day find their mother, while Zushio has all but given up and resigned himself to the life of a slave. But Anju manages to convince Zushio to escape, whereupon he sets about trying to right the wrongs that brought about the family's downfall and to also reconnect with his parents. Of course, things don't go all that well and everything ends rather tragically.
Sansho the Bailiff is what I would call an intimate epic - a story covering years, if not decades, and sweeping up huge social changes in its wake while telling the tale of but one family. There are moments of beauty to be found within, even if the tragedy is somewhat predictable at every turn. Whether that's due to the film concerning itself more with the journey than the destination or an increased awareness of story-telling construction, I'm not entirely certain. Unfortunately the sound was often piercing, with many a high wailing threatening to burst ear drums in the cinema - more the fault of the DVD than the film itself, but these matters of presentation, well, matter.
Honestly, to really give you a proper examination of the film I would have to watch it again - it has been some time since I saw it and the sound issue was often distracting when I was watching it. And dammit, I'm annoyed at this cop out, but I'd rather post something honest here than try and flub my way through. What I can tell you is that Sansho the Bailiff is flawed, sometimes beautiful, dramatic and, yes, an intimate epic.