Review: 47 Ronin (1994)


Much like the stories of A Christmas Carol or Cinderella in the west, the story of the 47 Ronin (AKA Chushingura) has inspired multiple retellings in Japan, with each teller trying to put his or her own spin on the tale.  This time around, it was a prestige feature directed by one of Japan’s national treasures, the prolific director, Kon Ichikawa.  So, how did he do?

First a brief synopsis.  The story revolves around an incident that remains shrouded in mystery in this production.  Sir Kira has a junior lord brought up on charges for striking at him with his sword.  The junior daimyo is forced to commit ritual suicide to atone for the act, thereby forfeiting his lands and turning his retainers into ronin, or masterless samurai.  After almost two years of preparations, 47 of the daimyo’s loyal retainers attempt to exact revenge.


This version of the story is a bit of a disappointment for me.  I have great love for the 1958 version (reviewed HERE) for its emotional storytelling finesse.  Ichikawa went in a different direction, instead trying to make this the Pulp Fiction version.  The timeline jumps around a bit and, if you’re not careful, you can get left behind pretty easily.  That’s a bigger concern here in the states than it is in Japan where everyone knows the story forwards and backwards, but it still removes some of the momentum evident in other versions.  I also felt like the individual sacrifices of each of the ronin was less clear in this version.  If the Japanese like anything about this tale, it’s the willingness the ronin exhibit to sacrifice themselves to a greater ideal.  That’s much less evident here than in previous versions.

Star, Ken Takakura, best known in the states for his turn opposite Michael Douglas in the Ridley Scott action film, Black Rain, does his damndest to give the story a face, but in the end it isn’t enough.  In Japan, Takakura is often compared to Clint Eastwood.  His sullen demeanor carries many a 70s yakuza film.  Here, he’s put to good use as the chamberlain in charge of the other ronin, but his great performance can’t save the flawed script.


The visuals are truly spectacular, though.  Relative newcomer Yukio Isohata captures vibrant and articulate images for his director.  His cinematography is on par with any big budget Hollywood feature.  It’s too bad it doesn’t elevate this story more than it does.

The art direction is equally adept.  Most outdoor scenes appear to have been shot at the real locations where these events would have transpired.  Those that have been recreated as interiors (if any) are seamless.  I was happy to see that the final fight takes place in the snow, as per the legend, but was less happy that Ichikawa chose to set it in the black of night.  Sticking to his hyper-realistic setting, some of the battle is hard to see.  This isn’t a huge deal as the logistics of the battle are clearly presented, but it makes things murky when the audience just wants to cheer.  There is also very little score in this section of the film–a choice that I don’t claim to understand.


As to the music, composer Kensaku Tanikawa’s doesn’t add much to the film.  Most of it sounds synthesized with not even a minor nod toward the period.  I didn’t dislike the music so much as I ignored it.  It never does anything to heighten the action.

These are minor quibbles as the screenplay is the real problem here.  Penned by the director, playwright Kaneo Ikegami, and Hiroshi Takayama, it’s a bit too clever for its own good.  I’m dumbstruck by the fact that they chose to obscure the inciting incident of the perceived foul against Kira.  The injustice of the incident and the dishonesty associated with it are what fuels many of the previous versions.  To have the truth kept from audiences and characters alike in this version is just plain bizarre.

I enjoyed seeing a new take on this material, but the viewing was cold and clinical.  Sort of like putting together a puzzle.  Sadly, this version is not recommended.