47 RONIN, THE (Genroku chushingura)


47 RONIN, THE (Genroku chushingura)

director/editor: Kenji Mizoguchi; screenwriters: Kenichiro Hara/Giken Ida/Yoshikata Yoda/from a play by Seika Mayama; cinematographer: Kôhei Sugiyama; music: Shirô Fukai; cast: Chojuro Kawarazaki (Kuranosuke Oishi), Utaemon Ichikawa (Tsunatoyo Tokugawa), Kanemon Nakamura (Sukeimon Tomimori), Yoshizaburo Arashi Lord Takuminokami Asano), Mieko Takamine (Omino, Isogai’s fiancee), Mantoyo Mimasu (Kozunosuke Kira); Runtime: 225; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Shintarô Shirai; Shochiku Films Ltd.; 1941-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles)

“This was possibly the best film of Japan’s war period.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Kenji Mizoguchi’s adaptation of the play by Seika Mayama is based on an historical event, and covers a legendary Japanese Kabuki story. It is set in the early part of the 18th century (1701) in feudal Japan and has 47 samurai seeking revenge on those who fooled their young warrior leader Lord Asano into taking his own life (hara-kiri). The court ceremonial lord, Kira (Mantoyo Mimasu), is not bribed as is the new custom and therefore fails to instruct Lord Asano (Yoshizaburo Arashi) on proper court etiquette, and through his open disdain makes the unsophisticated young lord go into an honest man’s rage. Since Asano slightly wounds Kira, he is judged by the court for his actions. Oishi Kuranosuke (Chojuro Kawarazaki), Asano’s loyal legion, blames the evil Lord Kira as responsible for his corrupt Shogun court and its attempt to force the honest warrior into an act of bribery and then hypocritically forcing him to follow traditional ceremony and take his life. The court is wracked with nepotism and bureaucracy and has replaced the true way of ritual and tradition, and is therefore seen as an evil force that must be rid of by the forces of good.

It takes over a year after Asano’s death for Oishi to recruit 47 loyal Ronin (samurai) to begin to exact revenge.

Filmed during WW11 the epic can be viewed mainly as a patriotic film, encouraged by the government to make it heroic to die with dignity for a cause. The film relates the tragic past with modern events, whereas now dying for the emperor is an honor and nationalism is unquestioned. But, through the artistry of the talented Mizoguchi (“The Life of Oharu”/”Ugetsu”), a leftist as far as politics but in his movie career considered an opportunist, it also weaves in some personal human complexities over the battle scenes. It’s innovatively filmed–stylishly ahead of its time with long Ozu-like takes, excellent use of framing and space in composition, as its visuals create their own poetry. Ultimately, on a more sublime level the film moves past its obvious point of unswerving obedience to the ruler as a virtue and views the relationship between an individual and his culture as something limited materially but unlimited spiritually (artistically).

This was possibly the best film of Japan’s war period. Its ending is very moving and reveals a lot about how the Japanese viewed the importance of character, loyalty and honor.