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It is said that every Japanese schoolboy knows the date 1702, when a group of 47 Ronin samurai avenged their fallen lord by staging a mass attack on an offending court official. Japan's 300 year-old national epic Chushingura exalts basic Japanese values, especially the most honorable tenets of bushido, the samurai or warrior's code. The historical event has inspired literally hundreds of film and television adaptations, distinguished one from another by subtle differences in stress. One version might emphasize the Byzantine politics of the Shogun's court, while another could focus on the domestic hardships of the retainers and samurai set adrift in the rigid Japanese social system. The big studios remade the Chushingura story to show off company assets, and there's hardly a name Japanese film star who hasn't appeared in at least one iteration, if not several.
Kunio Watabe's 1958 version for the Daiei studio, The Loyal 47 Ronin is a lavish production in color and Daieiscope. It's an excellent point of entry for those wishing a basic tutorial on feudal values under the Shogun. The basic story is easy enough to follow, but as there are at least thirty main characters to keep straight.
The story tells of the 47 retainer-swordsmen of Lord Asano (Raizo Ichikawa) caught in a Catch-22 between contradictory rules of duty and obedience. Lord Asano is charged with hosting a reception for the Shogun's messenger but is unschooled in the all-important details of dress and deportment. The only official who can help, Lord Kira (Osamo Takizawa), repeatedly insults Asano and gives him contrary advice. Kira wants to humiliate Asano, with the aim of influencing the Shogun to dissolve the Lord's family and seize his property. Unable to bear the slight to his honor, Asano draws his sword in the palace and wounds Kira slightly -- a capital offense.
Unfavorable politics ensure that Asano is denied his day in court, and is instead instructed to commit suicide. His property is forfeit and his vassals are discharged. Asano's 47 samurai retainers are pledged by honor to strike back against Lord Kira, while obedience to the Shogun demands that they be humble and accept the situation. Asano's chief retainer Oishi (Kazuo Hasegawa of Revenge of a Kabuki Actor) heads off rash retaliation, and also forbids his men to commit mass suicide. Oishi instead formulates a secret revenge plan that will be an ultimate test of samurai loyalty.
Oishi's strategy requires that his men disband and publicly renounce their desire to seek revenge. They must hide the truth even from their loved ones. One young swordsman is thrown out by his furious father-in-law (Takashi Shimura of Seven Samurai) and all of them endure public scorn and abuse. Oishi tells Lord Asano's widow (Fujiko Yamamoto) that he'll not be seeking revenge. He then loses himself in drinking and cavorting. Oishi's loyal wife is shattered when he brings a prostitute home to meet her, In front of his mother, children and the neighbors, Oishi divorces his wife and sends his entire family away.
All this is necessary because Kira has planted spies everywhere. As a full year passes, one of his men sets up a trinket store opposite Kira's walled city compound, and begins an affair with the daughter of the architect (Ayako Wakao of Manji and Red Angel) so as to obtain the blueprints of Kira's house. Another Ronin is so poor that his mother volunteers to kill herself so that he can continue to follow Oishi's instructions.
The restraint and self-abasement eventually pay off. Other officials dislike the greedy, conspiratorial Kira, and the Shogun eventually regrets that he allowed his regent to punish Lord Asano too severely. A deep-cover agent (Machiko Kyo) in Kira's employ is so impressed by the noble Oishi that she switches loyalties to protect him. Sympathy for the 47 ronin increases, and Oishi sneaks back into town by masquerading as a man named Gorobei. In a truly marvelous scene, the real Gorobei arrives on Oishi's doorstep to demand an explanation. When he realizes that he's speaking to the respected Oishi, Gorobei not only backs down, he offers his own credentials to help Oishi continue his impersonation. The meeting is played out in formal speech and gestures, with only the tears welling up in Oishi's eyes betraying his gratitude.
With the day of revenge at hand, the 47 make final contact with their estranged families and sweethearts, but still cannot reveal their mission. As snowflakes fall, they form into two groups to storm the gates of Kira's estate.
The Loyal 47 ronin serves up a dazzling battle in the snow, albeit a slightly stylized one. The sword fighting is violent but not entirely realistic, with duels that resemble part-dance fights as might be performed on a stage. There's very little blood; the heyday of the explicit Samurai film is still a few years away.
Thanks to Oishi's careful strategy the avengers achieve a state of almost god-like grace, but we understand that their full obligation won't be discharged until they all kill themselves. The ultimate ideal is to put one's life behind one's oath. Under Bushido, this conviction combined with personal sacrifice gives the warrior the moral right to exact revenge. Depending on one's viewpoint, the story is either an expression of national identity or a glorification of fanaticism.
Spirited acting and excellent production values make the epic-length The Loyal 47 Ronin a pleasure to watch. Osamo Takizawa is particularly villainous as the craven Lord Kira. Daiei built enormous sets for the film, which is mostly filmed in studio interiors. Lord Asano's court attire alternates between unwieldy robes and a tent-like floppy dress that trails sleeves and pants legs when he walks. The 47 have been wearing rags and disguises for a year, but for their day of triumph they appear in smart matching costumes bearing Lord Asano's insignia. We never saw so many well-dressed warriors enraptured by the promise of an honorable death.
AnimEigo's DVD of The Loyal 47 Ronin is a pleasing, colorful enhanced transfer of this classy production, looking much better than Image Entertainment's flat-letterboxed DVD of the also-good 1962 Hiroshi Inagaki version.
Once again, AnimEigo's presentation makes a classic accessible to viewers unacquainted with Japanese history, customs or movie genres. The careful subtitles are often accompanied by explanations of new words and names. The text program notes discuss the historical basis for the story as well as explain the relationships between the various Shogunate officials and nobles. The only thing that throws us is the fact that Lord Asano, Lord Kira and a few other characters are addressed by differently in different situations. Luckily, keeping most of the characters straight is not difficult.
Along with the program notes come detailed text talent bios, where we learn that one of the actors is Shintaro Katsu, the star of the popular Zatoichi blind swordsman series. A gallery of stills is included as well.
Japanese film expert Stuart Galbraith IV has written an excellent, informed review of The Loyal 47 Ronin, accessible at this link.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.