Review: The Loyal 47 Ronin (1958)

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The story of the 47 Ronin, AKA Chushingura, is one of the most popular of all Japanese tales.  Some would say it is the top of the heap, besting even classics like The Subscription List.  As such, it’s been made into films, television shows, kabuki plays, bunraku and every other entertainment under the sun.  Much like western classics A Christmas Carol, Dracula, or Cinderella (said to be the most filmed story ever, BTW), each production has its own flavor.  Unlike those western classics, however, The 47 Ronin stands as much for Japanese society itself as for the true historical events it’s based on.

Which brings us to the 1958 Daiei Film production of The Loyal 47 Ronin, directed by Kunio Watanabe.  It’s a lavish, big budget movie, mounted by one of the most successful directors of the age and it doesn’t disappoint.  Yes, there are elements (such as the music) that reek of the filmmakers’ attempts to mimic Hollywood productions, but those do little to quench the sentimental (and very Japanese) charms of this film.  If you see one film version of Chushingura, this is the one.  At a little less than three hours, it’s much shorter than the 11-act, kabuki version, but it packs a lot into a relatively short running time.

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Like so many Japanese things, the story of the 47 ronin is simple on the surface but extremely complex underneath.  To understand the emotional underpinnings of the tale, I believe you must first understand a little bit about Japanese society and the role that duty and honor play in that culture even today.  If you have even an inkling of the torrent of emotions that lies under the surface of even the most stoic character here, you’ll begin to understand the heartbreaking tragedy and uplifting nationalism that have made this story so popular over the years.

The story revolves around a feudal lord, or daimyo, who is repeatedly baited and insulted by another lord of higher rank.  When he finally reaches the breaking point, the younger lord threatens the elder and severely breaches a slew of protocols at a major meeting.  The shogun cannot ignore this, but his punishment for the young lord is seen by the local populace to be somewhat unjust–he is forced to commit ritual suicide while the lord who knowingly baited him is left completely unpunished.  Of the young daimyo’s several hundred samurai retainers, 47 vow to avenge their master’s death no matter what the cost may be.

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Most Japanese film aficionados are drawn to this production because of the plethora of talent on display here.  Daiei pulled out all the stops and included all of its top tier actors.  Most notable to chanbara (sword fighting) movie fans are Shintaro Katsu, best known for his role as Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, and Raizo Ichikawa of the Sleepy Eyes of Death and Shinobi No Mono films among many others, but virtually everyone on screen had a resume a mile long by the end of the 1960s.  Almost every face is recognizable if you’ve seen even a handful of Daiei pictures, and all of them contribute to such a wonderful ensemble cast that no one stands out in the end.  If there is a hub to this wheel, it would have to be the character of Oishi who more or less acts as leader to the other 46 ronin.  Fortunately, the brilliant Kazuo Hasegawa blends in with the rest of the ensemble and creates his character from gentle, understated energy.

The production itself is mostly stage bound, but that was to be expected at the time.  After all, how could Watanabe have performed the miracle of shooting this masterpiece in 34 days if he’d had to contend with the logistics of location shoots?  That said, it would have been nice to have seen more ambitious shots on display here.  This film could have easily rivaled the Western productions of David Lean, but it didn’t largely because the studio system was in full swing and Daiei wasn’t going to spend one yen more on this feature than it had to.

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I’ve never been a huge fan of 50s cinema.  The cloyingly fake qualities so evident in most films from that era leave me wanting most of the time.  Maybe it’s just the nature of the original story, but 47 Ronin works well within those 50s aesthetics and perhaps even shines more brightly because of them.  Very highly recommended.

 

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