The great director’s legendary version of Chushingura is finally available in a sparkling DVD transfer
Genroku Chushingura, also known as The Forty-Seven Ronin of the Genroku Era, or in the case of Kenji Mizoguchi’s two-part, 220-minute adaptation, The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin (1941-42), is one of Japan’s great historical legends. Retold in countless theatrical versions and perhaps several dozen films, Ronin tells the story of a band of masterless samurai (ronin) who exact revenge for the death of their beloved master and then commit hara-kiri. In her book Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema Under the American Occupation 1945-1952, Kyoko Hirano notes, “It is said that whenever a film studio fell into financial distress, it would produce a film based on this story, for a guaranteed hit.”
In fact, Mizoguchi’s 220-minute black-and-white version reversed that trend. The film was not only not a hit, but it broke one studio – Koa, where part one was filmed – and nearly bankrupted a second – Shochiku, which took over the production of part two. The film is also a curious one for the director, whose career is more notable for sweeping historical works (Sansho the Bailiff) and grim women-centered melodramas (The Life of Oharu) than for action-oriented samurai movies. And indeed, there’s surprisingly little action in his version of a story noted for its violence, betrayal, suicide, and social upheaval. The project was more or less forced on Mizoguchi and his studios by a government that was taking increasing control of film production and mandating a cinema that would inspire loyalty among the people as the country sank deeper into World War II. Ronin was an ideal project for this purpose, with its powerful images of loyalty at any cost and the heroic pleasures of self-sacrifice to a greater good, and Mizoguchi responded enough to the more contemplative, downbeat elements to make it one of his most intriguing pictures.
The story opens in 1701, with Lord Asano of Ako Castle attending formal ceremonies at Edo Castle. Unaware of certain proprieties, he responds to insults by Lord Kira by drawing his sword and slightly wounding him, an act that brings a death sentence on Asano. After he’s forced to kill himself, his lands and buildings are taken, his family is ousted, and his samurai are forced into the lowly status of ronin. The remainder of this complex tale explores the decline and spiritual redemption of these men as they plot to take revenge on Lord Kira and reinstate their honor, and the honor of their house, before joining their master in committing ritual suicide.
Perhaps not unexpectedly for anyone aware of Mizoguchi’s style, but unsatisfactorily for Japan’s mass audiences who knew the tale well and no doubt had their own expectations, his Ronin subjugates swordplay and bloodshed to contemplation and emotion. The only obviously violent scene occurs when Lord Asano attacks Kira, but even that is only shown briefly. Key events like the death of Asano, the attack on Kira’s castle, and even the mass suicide that ends the film are not shown but only tantalizingly led up to with Mizoguchi’s trademark stately framing and elegant tracking shots; in a masterful ellipsis, the final assault on Kira’s castle is only revealed by a message read by Lady Asano. Throughout, the director concentrates on the ronin’s emotional anguish and overwhelming sense of loss, powerfully imparted in bitter long-take dialogue exchanges, scenes in which the ronin are literally laid low with grief, or the simple tracking of a character moving with slow solemnity through an empty garden. The director’s treatment of an early suicide by one of the ronin, who takes his son along with him, typifies the film’s air of tragic poignancy.
Previously hampered in many of his budgets, Mizoguchi for the first time was given enormous freedom in this area, with the first part alone costing a record 530,000 yen, or about five times the budget of a typical major film of the era. The effects of this freedom are everywhere evident on screen, with the director’s fetish for historical authenticity for once completely realized in meticulously detailed costumes and elaborate, full-scale sets. This is also the first film in which he was able to employ a crane extensively, and Ronin contains some of his most extravagantly beautiful shots utilizing this device. The director acknowledged his debt to von Sternberg around this time, but the sheer visual beauty of Ronin is distinctively “Mizoguchian.” Fans of the director will find it a major achievement; those more familiar with the more action-minded 1962 Toho version or any of the many others that take a more standard approach may be disappointed.
In spite of the film’s box-office failure, the government heartily approved what it saw as an affirming message of the importance of loyalty under extreme duress, and awarded Mizoguchi a special prize for his achievement. The film was not seen in the west until 1979. Image’s transfer is for the most part sharp and highly watchable, a far cry from what’s usually seen on the underground dupes that circulate on films this rare.