1962 / Color / 2:35; not 16:9 / Dolby Digital Mono/ 207 m.
Starring Koshiro Matsumoto, Yuzo Kayama, Chusha Ichikawa, Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Tsukasa, Setsuko Hara, Tatsuya Mihashi, Yosuke Natsuki, Ichiro Arishima, Norihei Miki, Frankie Sakai, Keiju Kobayashi, Yuriko Hoshi, Yumi Shirakawa, Kumi Mizuno, Akira Takarada, Takashi Shimura, Michiyo Aratama
Cinematography Kazuo Yamada
Art director Kisaku Ito
Original Music Akira Ifukube
Writing credits Toshio Yasumi from the play Kanadehon Chushingura by Shoraku Miyoshi, Senryu Namiki, Izumo Takeda
Directed by Hiroshi Inagaki
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Confused by the politics and cultural differences in movies like The Yakuza, Savant read a
book on the 'inscrutable' Japanese culture recommended by a family member. It didn't help
clear things up much, but it did say that a key to understanding the Japanese ideal of honor and
loyalty was a story called The 47 Ronin that every Japanese schoolchild was expected to
memorize. Look in the
Internet Movie Database and you'll find movie versions of this tale dating back to 1932.
One of Savant's strangest nights at the arthouse theater was with a group of friends in 1978 or
so, watching the 1942 version: four straight hours of people talking on mats.
Incomprehensible subtitles. All the action off screen. In the intermission, while
we were stretching our sore rear ends in the old theater seats, I remember Robert Birchard
saying, 'There better be one **** of a big battle at the end of this." Sure enough,
when the conclusion came ages later, someone ran onscreen to announce that a bloody battle
occurred, and boy we should have seen it. This 1962 version is very different.
Synopsis (spoilers galore):
Lord Asano (Yuzo Kayama) won't bribe the corrupt Kira (Chusha Ichikawa), a court
protocol expert who procedes to do everything possible to discredit the young and idealistic
Lord. Asano is forced to pay a fortune to have a building's worth of floormats
replaced overnight to pacify the selfish and greedy Kira, but he still won't bribe him.
To make Asano grovel, Kira withholds vital protocol information for an important
meeting. Finally Asano cannot bear the humiliation, loses his head, and attacks.
He is subdued after only wounding the cowardly Kira. Drawing a sword within
the Shogun's palace is a capital offense, and Asano's sentence is carried out with yet
more protocol ending in a formal seppuku ceremony: Asano disembowels himself
with a knife and is decapitated by a headsman.
Asano's fate isn't the end of grief; his estate and castle are forfeit, and his vassals,
including his family and the 47 samurai who serve him, are left both destitute and
dishonored, banished from royal life. Expecting the 47 to defend the castle in
a renegade outlaw battle, the Shogun's agents are surprised when their leader,
Kuranosuke Oishi (Koshiro Matsumoto) not only surrenders it, but does repairs first.
The samurai scatter and those that settle nearby are the source of constant
gossip. Are they really pacified, or do they secretly plot to get revenge
against Kira for their lamented Lord Asano? How will honor be regained, and
their conflicting obligations to their Lord and their Shogun be satisfied?
Chushingura is the most elaborate, longest, and most interesting samurai film Savant
has seen outside the Kurosawa classics. At three and a half hours, with intermission,
it's best seen on consecutive nights. Part one is called Blossoms, and Part
two, Snow. It never seems slow, even though all of its action is
reserved for the conclusion. Devotees of Japanese monster movies, or Kaiju
Eiga, will delight in seeing almost all of the familiar Toho faces in the cast.
With his head shaved, Frankie Sakai from Mothra plays a likeable architect.
Toshiro Mifune is featured on the cover and in the advertising, but has a minor
part as a teacher of a particular fighting style with an odd-looking spear. He
isn't one of the 47 ... exactly. The movie has a subdued but stirring score
by Akira Ikufube, too.
There are a couple of dozen main characters to follow, and the story is well-told by
director Inagaki, whose work is unfussy but clean and to the point. The color
is particularly beautiful. As this story is indeed a Japanese National Epic,
everyone gives their utmost, and the dramatic impact is quite substantial.
(Probably more spoilers in the discussion ahead)
Especially fascinating is the contrast between Japanese and American ideals of honor and
duty. Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is a more universal and affecting experience,
but it is an essentially Western, modernist work. Here we Americans are confronted
with what seems a bewildering set of values. The court formalities by which Lord Asano
must abide are so strict, that the position of a man in a ceremony can lead to a
career-crippling, even fatal mistake. Once Asano's honor and station are nullified by
his impulsive act, hundreds of innocents under him in the feudal hierarchy are declassed
and suffer for no fault of their own. The injustice is understandable, but the
revenge plan, one that spans years, is less so. Oishi must find a way to get
back at Kira that does not add more dishonor to Asano's memory. It's unforgiveable
to break every law on the books by avenging their Lord, and equally unforgiveable not to.
The contrast between our 'classic values' and Japanese 'classic values' is acute.
Obviously only rare modern examples can be found of either - Savant thinks of the
bizarre cases of Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, poet-militarist Yukio Mishima.
Oishi's plan involves self-abasement and humilition. He gives orders that the 47
faithfully follow without knowing why, an important lesson for the Japanese schoolchild,
whose obedience is supposed to be total and unaffected by personal assessments of the
situation. The 47 either fall into dissolute lifestyles or retire from the Samurai
class altogether. Their own relatives, wives and lovers remain ignorant of their
true motives. The scorn they earn only makes them more worthy for the glory they
seek. And their reward only comes in death, a known, suicidal death that redeems
them and excuses their crime.
Not that it's any step down from Western-style ego-driven aggression and self-righteousness,
but this 'ideal' mode of behavior can't be very compatible with peaceful living, in Japan
or anywhere else. Not only is resolving one's differences with a bloodbath an
antisocial habit, but most of the characters of Chushingura enter a
death pact that leaves little room for anything like living. More than likely, the
story is considered a beautiful expression of the values of a time that has passed on.
We here in the States have our own myths, like The Alamo
that have equal sentimental value even as their morals and merits are debated. It's
just that as a pattern for living, the best exemplar of the values of either myth would
be a suicide assassin. 1
However, Chushingura's bewildering values have a stirring emotional pull, and the
movie is great foreign-film entertainment with some good swordfighting action to boot.
Oh, and don't worry, there IS one **** of a battle at the end.
Image Entertainment's DVD of Chushingura is very handsome. It looks great to see
a spangled, multicolored Toho logo on a DVD. They're listed as the source on the
package, so it warms the heart to think that more Toho imports through Image might be
possible. The TohoScope image is clean, colorful and detailed, and the sound
is fine. The subtitles are easy to read but an unremovable part of the
image, which makes it impossible to watch the movie fullscreen on my 16:9 television without
cutting them off. The disc has an old-style Image logo - was this a master used on
a laserdisc? Savant doesn't remember one - he would have tried to rent it! There
is no trailer on the disc.
Want to wade into the epic cultural mainstream legend of Japan? Chushingura is
quite an eye opener.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Chushingura rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: May 4, 2001
1. Another comparison that comes to mind goes far afield of Samurai
films: our Deep Impact, (1998) and Toho's Gorath (1964). Our space heroes
decide that by sacrificing themselves, they may be able to save the Earth. The emotional
end finds the suicidal astronauts saying goodbye to loved ones in tearful but uplifting
videophone conversations - they are canonized, bronzed, and otherwise immortalized in
our hearts forever ... a forever which may only last a few hours whether or not they kill
themselves. It's a very Japanese - like gesture, sacrificing one's self for the group,
and we tend to call any person who steps out of the strict mantra of self-preservation
long enough to help another person, a hero. Fair enough, except the astronauts have
taken on the mantle of heroes for what are obviously very ego-driven reasons, and
their sacrifice brings out (in the audience, at least) a conflict of values. We
rarely 'lay down the sacrifice so someone else can score a home
run' (They Were Expendable): we Americans want our
sainthood NOW, perferably with stock options and sex too. In Gorath (the
original Japanese version) a single Japanese spaceship with eight or so astronauts on
board detects the massive Earth-colliding planetoid hurtling into our solar system. They
have a choice, to make a run for it, or allow themselves to be pulled into its magnetic
field and crash on its surface - while compiling and transmitting data back that Earth
scientists might be able to use to save the world. The response from the crew is
unanimous (even the one American) - "Banzai!" they shout, which is not a cry of battle
but of solidarity. Nobody on Earth even knows there's a threat yet, and they will
probably be totally forgotten in the frantic days ahead, but they go right on and give
it up for the home planet. It's a passive sacrifice (crashing into the untouched
enemy) as opposed to the aggressive American one (dying, but only while blowing the
enemy to bits). And none of the Gorath heroes can expect to have a Junior
High School named after them, either. Return
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Index of Articles.
Return to Top of Page