The Criterion Collection’s new releases of The Kid with a Bike and Sansho the Bailiff mirror each other in interesting ways, despite their very obvious discrepancies of subject matter and time period.  Released in 1954, Sansho the Bailiff is a measured, aesthetically formal look at feudal Japan, while The Kid with a Bike – which won the 2011 Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival – is a gritty, vérité drama set in contemporary France.   Yet viewed together, they stand indicative of how mankind’s capacity for cruelty cannot fully extinguish its capacity for good, how that struggle defines our humanity.

Sansho the Bailiff is interesting because it pivots on a moment of goodness.  A decent, kind governor (Masao Shimizu) takes a principled stand against his feudal lords and is exiled, with his wife (Kinuyo Tanaka) and two children (Yoshiaki Hanayagi and Kyôko Kagawa) later captured and sold into slavery.  There, they suffer under the hand of the title character (Eitarô Shindô), whose abuses spur the family into dreams of escape.

Sansho is a vile creation, reminiscent of Sessue Hayakawa’s Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai, but don’t assume from that comparison that Sansho the Bailiff is some sort of full-throated adventure.  While Japanese cinema in 1954 was definitely trending towards genre-ready thrills – that same year, Akira Kurosawa released his great Seven Samurai, which set the action-adventure template for hundreds of films to come – director Kenji Mizoguchi’s drama is far more contemplative.  His style reminds me of Yasujiro Ozu; both men eschew flashy camerawork and vivid action for simple, formally balanced compositions that tell their respective stories using a minimum of editing.  The pace is slower because Mizoguchi wants the viewer to absorb the weight of the years, the evil that Sansho wreaks upon his slaves, because a greater understanding of these hardships only enhances the conclusion’s sense of catharsis.

In many ways, Sansho the Bailiff reminds me of Schindler’s List, as each film devotes long stretches of time to the sadistic treatment meted out on the protagonists.  Sansho the Bailiff is far less graphically violent than that Steven Spielberg classic, though Mizoguchi approaches this rough material with surprising potency (for 1954, anyways).  What endures, like with Schindler’s List, is humanity’s ineffable spark.  Despite Sansho’s depredations, the governor’s family holds fast to the hope that goodness will prevail.  That’s the miracle of Mizoguchi’s work here.  He has too much respect for his heroes to ignore their suffering; he knows it can’t kill their spirit.

By comparison, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Kid with a Bike begins after its central tragedy has occurred.  This matter is not a political or social concern, but rather a familial one: a shiftless, self-serving man (Jeremie Renier) decides he doesn’t want to care for his eleven-year-old son Cyril (Thomas Doret), and he deposits the child at a group home, leaving Cyril with nothing but vague promises of reconciliation.  Even before the father moves away and changes his phone number, it’s clear to everyone at the home that he’s never coming back, but Cyril refuses to believe he has been abandoned.  The film’s opening half-hour plays out in a rush of heedless momentum – as energized as Sansho the Bailiff is restrained – following Cyril as he evades the group home’s administrators and lights off in pursuit of his father.

The sequence ends, as it must – in tears – but the Dardenne brothers aren’t interested in making their audience wallow.  Gradually, they let in Cécile De France’s hairdresser Samantha, who witnesses Cyril’s public outburst over his dad’s absence, and she decides to foster the child on weekends.  If I have any problem with The Kid with a Bike, it’s that Samantha’s initial decision to help care for Cyril reads as more than a little inexplicable.  The Dardennes don’t burden their characters with stated motivations and rote exposition, so we never fully understand the origin of Samantha’s charity.

In a lesser film, the bond between Cyril and Samantha would be the stuff of Lifetime melodramas, and for a while, we’re right to worry.  We get the obligatory scenes of Cyril and Samantha learning to trust one another, as well as all sorts of external stimuli that threaten to tear them apart (Samantha’s callow boyfriend, a local drug dealer who takes an unhealthy interest in Cyril).  But the Dardenne brothers use realism to undercut the sentimentality.  Cyril is a mess of neuroses and aggression, and Doret gives him a ferocity that scares us – and Samantha.  He’s unpredictable, borderline feral, and though Samantha’s affection for him ultimately has no bounds, the Dardennes derive a great deal of tension from one fundamental question: in the real world, can love conquer all?

And it is in this question that gives The Kid with a Bike its strongest link to Sansho the Bailiff.  Neither film guarantees its characters a happy ending, but against all odds, they keep hoping for this best.  It’s just in our nature, for better or worse.

Criterion’s respective Blu-rays for these two titles look and sound great.  Sansho the Bailiff just received a new restoration, and the 1.33:1 picture looks sharp, with solid black levels; the disc also has a quietly effective LPCM monaural audio track.  The Kid with the Bike is newer but no less impressive, with a DP-supervised transfer that preserves the Dardenne brothers’ aesthetic preferences and a great 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.

Each disc has a good crop of supplements.  On Sansho the Bailiff: an audio commentary with Japanese literature scholar Jeffrey Angles; two interviews, one with actress Kyôko Kagawa and one with first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka; a critical appraisal of the film from Japanese film historian Tadao Sato; and a booklet featuring an essay by scholar Mark Le Fanu and two versions of the Sansho the Bailiff story.

On The Kid with a Bike: three great interviews with Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Cécile De France, and Thomas Doret; the “Return to Seraing” featurette on the film’s locations; the theatrical trailer; and a booklet with a Geoff Andrew article.

Both Sansho the Bailiff and The Kid with a Bike don’t pull any punches with their rough-and-tumble views of the world, but they use hardships to highlight the best in us.

Sansho the Bailiff streets on February 26th, and The Kid with a Bike is now available.  Click HERE and HERE for Amazon’s respective Blu-ray listings.

Culture Movie Review: The Criterion Collection's SANSHO THE BAILIFF and THE KID WITH...