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Savant Review:


Image Entertainment
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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
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

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