Honor and revenge in a key moment in Japanese history
Initial release: 1962
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
The way lots of media have it, honor is everything in medieval Japan. Seppuku is common, media will tell you —especially Japanese media — and honor and saving face are all that matters.
While it’s a complex topic — and the oft-cited bushido code wasn’t really codified until the Edo period, well after samurai, its primary practitioners, had generally ceased being important as warriors — the fact remains that honor did play a role in surprising ways.
Take the case of the 47 ronin. When during a reception for the emperor at Edo castle, noble lord Asano loses his temper and attacks a rude court official named Kira for insulting him, he is forced to commit seppuku, his family name ruined and his retainers all lose their jobs — becoming ronin, or masterless.
Finding the situation unfair, his retainers, who are barred from seeking revenge despite the bushido code demanding they do so, nevertheless plan their vengeance. After two years of planning, and most of the ronin deciding to bow out of the revenge plan, the remaining 47 ronin stage their assault on Kira’s castle, capturing him and decapitating him, despite knowing that they would all be sentenced to death for doing so.
It’s a seminal moment in Japanese history, taught to school children to the point where most of the country knows the story by heart, and highly representative of the samurai culture of honor and loyalty, sometimes coming before reason, and how that can conflict with the law and the state. As such, the case has been told in one form or another for three hundred years, forming a thematic genre called Chūshingura. (Hey, that’s the name of this movie! To help avoid confusion, I’m going to refer to the legend as the Akō incident, as it’s called in Japan.)
Chūshingura, the movie (a shorter cut is known in the west as The 47 Samurai) is the most well-known adaptation of the story to Western audiences; while Toshiro Mifune gets headline billing he actually plays a fairly minor role in the film, which is largely driven by Hakuo Matsumoto in his role as Chamberlain Oishi, who masterminds the revenge plot. Alongside them is a regular who’s-who of kaiju cinema, as the film was produced by Toho, also known as the company behind a lot of the giant monster movies we know and love.
Of course, with a film with as many characters as this one, it’s unfair to point at any one character or actor and assign the whole of the film to them; by the same token, however, with so many characters, actual characterization is spread fairly thin: Kira is a corrupt, venal asshole, Asano is deeply moral and opposed to corruption, and so on. Even at three and a half hours, this is not a strongly character-driven film so much as it’s thematic, built more on pulling together a dozen disparate pieces for a grand finale, the film’s one really big action sequence in which the 47 ronin stage their assault. It’s complete chaos as they get into it with Kira’s guards, searching room by room for their target.
What the film instead builds on is the political background of the incident, and the interplay of the very rigid Edo-era customs with more human responses. Like the meticulous rituals of state and hospitality, sometimes the film can slow to a crawl, but even the smallest steps lead to an eventual goal. It’s a beautiful film, too, expertly shot and edited, the final assault sequence in particular just absolutely flawless (I especially liked a scene in which a ronin’s fighting with a guard in a corridor is slowly revealed as the wall panels are knocked off one by one by the impacts of their duel.)
And lest we think that the film is a celebration of the sheer absurdity of the values on display, Inagaki’s film is instead a carefully-orchestrated critique of such values, with pointed things to say about the nobility and its cruelty and corruption — all stuff you couldn’t really get away with prior to 1945. On some level, this is reflective of the Japanese national mood following the war; the sins of the war, and of Imperial Japan, were blamed on an excessive reverence of bushido; films like Chūshingura exist as a critique of that reverence, in part in response to a revival in the 1950s of heroic samurai film following the lifting of restrictions by the US occupying forces (performances of the Akō incident, for example, were actually banned until 1947.)
There’s a lot to like about Chūshingura, but its plodding pace, lengthy runtime and relatively flat characters mar what’s otherwise a great film.