The 47 Ronin (dir. Hiroshi Inagaki): a drawn-out epic about maintaining abstract ideals in a changing society

Hiroshi Inagaki, “The 47 Ronin / Chushingura: Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki” (1962)

The tale of the 47 masterless samurai who avenged their lord’s forced seppuku death in defiance of the Tokugawa shogunate’s orders is one that’s been celebrated in cinema several times and this version is a lavish epic lasting well over 3 hours. It boasts an impressive cast including Toshiro Mifune and is impressively staged: most scenes are breathtaking for the sheer beauty of the backgrounds and various props with their attention to historical detail. The plot itself can be very drawn out and slow but director Inagaki extracts and deftly escalates the tension and suspense towards the inevitable showdown climax. Themes of samurai honour and loyalty, and retribution for wrongful death and atonement run throughout the film, as might be expected; there is also a commentary on the political corruption of the shogunate that provides the social context in which the tragic events play out. The film challenges viewers on whether personal integrity and idealism are preferable over self-interest and street cunning, and on whether the code of bushido, admirable in many respects, might ask too much of people in surrendering their lives and relationships to abstract ideals. Within the film also, there is a sense that time is passing and the world of the Tokugawas is becoming irrelevant to the needs of people, high-born and lowly alike, and that as a result the old ways and ideals are succumbing to materialism and the pursuit of pleasure, and true and worthy values no longer hold attraction for people.

For Western audiences, the classic tale is basically as follows: at the turn of the 18th century, Lord Asano is obliged to receive envoys from the Shogun and offer his home and castle to his retainers. To this end, Lord Kira is sent to teach Lord Asano the finer points of the appropriate ceremonies to be conducted. Lord Kira demands that Lord Asano offer him gifts and bribes as befit his position when the younger man arrives at the Shogun’s residence but Lord Asano refuses to engage in such corrupt practices. Lord Kira angrily insults Lord Asano to the extent that the young daimyo loses his temper and draws his sword against the instructor. Lord Kira suffers a slight wound but Lord Asano is punished for having drawn his sword in the Shogun’s residence and is obliged to commit seppuku. In addition, his properties and wealth are to be surrendered to the Shogun and his entire family is ruined.

Lord Asano’s retainers, led by Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, become ronin (samurai without master), surrender their lord’s castle without a fight. Oishi and 46 other retainers swear to restore Lord Asano’s family. After an early attempt to gain permission to restore the Asano family fails, Oishi then gives up and resignedly leads a life of dissolution while the other men disperse. People wonder if he’s lost his marbles and jeer and make fun of him. The reality though is that Oishi is secretly plotting with his men to bring ruin to Lord Kira at a time when Lord Kira has let down his guard in the belief that Lord Asano’s men are not seeking revenge.

The film’s fastidious attention to historical details is prominent but this is not at the expense of the plot or the acting. Characterisation can be patchy: Oishi’s character and a few minor characters are fleshed out very well and viewers can see their inner struggles as they strive in their own ways to remain faithful to the memory of Lord Asano yet pretend otherwise in order to throw off Lord Kira’s spies. On the other hand, Lord Kira is portrayed as a pathetic clown who loves pleasure and clings to life in a way that invites contempt. (There may be a good reason for portraying Lord Kira in such an unbecoming way: the film suggests that Oishi and the other retainers are wasting two years of their time plotting revenge on such a pitiful wretch and they would have been better off fighting the Shogun’s army and dying for their lord’s castle in the first place before deciding to surrender it without a fight.) The actor Toshiro Mifune has a minor role as a masterless ronin that simply repeats past roles he played in various Akira Kurosawa historical drama flicks.

The plot flows easily from main story to various sub-plots and weaves all the parallel strands into one mega-work that gives the impression of encompassing all levels of society in early 18th century Tokugawa Japan. The viewer gains a little insight into social and political changes then sweeping the country: society from the Shogunate down is becoming corrupted by self-interest, the pursuit of sensuous pleasures and greed, and those who uphold the old ideals of loyalty, honour and self-sacrifice increasingly find themselves shut out of a society interested in material wealth, status and flattering and bribing others to get ahead.

Perhaps the film could have been edited here and there – the pace does bog down to very glacial levels – and critical moments in the film such as Lord Asano’s seppuku ritual tend to be cut off abruptly. The actual tale of the 47 ronin is quite thin and padded out with fight scenes, staged scenery, several sub-plots and moments of earthy humour. What motives Inagaki may have had in making the film – his version came out a few years after another movie version which itself followed hard on the trail of yet another – I have no idea: he may have been trying to revive people’s interest in their traditional culture, emphasising aspects he believed worth preserving and passing onto younger generations, in the context of a period in which Japanese society was exposed to heavy doses of American culture after Japan’s defeat in World War II. ┬áThere is some emphasis on the masterless ronin disobeying the Shogun in plotting to kill Lord Kira and that could be taken as a warning to Japanese audiences that loyalty to samurai ideals should not be subordinated to unthinking obedience to government. On the whole, “The 47 Ronin” is a highly involving film, quite typical of action films of its time, which has aged well and whose themes might still resound with audiences in Japan and beyond today.



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