The 47 Ronin has been called Japan’s national epic, a dramatic legend based on real events at the beginning of the 18th century. These events almost immediately inspired both kabuki and bunraku plays, some of which are still performed today. In addition, the story of the 47 Ronin has been filmed many times, a testament to its popularity inside Japan and abroad. Most popular amongst the film adaptations are Kenji Mizoguchi’s wartime version, released in 1941, and this version: Toho director Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 release.
And, like Inagaki’s famous Musashi trilogy, it’s a big film. Clocking in at a little over three hours, it’s got a huge cast, elaborate period sets and costumes, and enough intrigue and melodrama for, well, an Inagaki film. I was surprised to find the tone of the film so similar to the Musashi films and Daredevil in the Castle: all three were built as solid cinematic entertainment and share a sense of spectacle as well as their historical context.
The story of this film concerns Lord Asano, the young daimyo of Ako, a small fiefdom in the countryside. He had been given orders (along with Lord Samai) to arrange a reception for envoys from the Emperor. In order to perform their duties correctly, both lords required tutelage in courtly etiquette from Lord Kira, a powerful official in the service of the Shogun. Lord Kira, however, is an amoral, corrupt character: he collects bribes from all those he has dealings with and becomes quite upset when Asano sends him a small gift, rather than the customary enormous bribe.
Kira then does all in his power to make Asano’s life difficult; he refuses to teach him, hides imperial orders from him, and takes every opportunity to insult Asano, in private and in public. Finally, Asano loses his cool and draws his sword, attacking Kira and mildly injuring him. This was an unforgiveable offense: Asano had drawn his sword in the Shogun’s residence and attacked a high-ranking official in his service. His punishment was harsh: he was ordered to commit hara-kiri, resulting in the confiscation of his lands, the ruination of his family and his samurai made ronin (masterless, and effectively no longer samurai).
Asano, rigid in his belief that bribery and corruption should not be tolerated, goes sadly to his death. His family and samurai are left completely adrift, their entire worlds turned upside-down by their lord’s actions. Eventually, those of the samurai that were absolutely loyal to their late lord band together in a plot to exact their revenge. Although they cannot restore Asano’s house to favour, they can finish the action he’d started and take revenge on Lord Kira. The plot, of course, is necessarily complicated: Kira is a wily and suspicious quarry, spying on Asano’s former samurai and hiring a large band of bodyguards to protect himself.
The band of 60-odd samurai swear themselves to secrecy and hide out of sight amongst the populace, handing over the castle at Ako to its new masters and doing nothing to attract attention. Asano’s right hand man, Oishi, even goes to the trouble of divorcing his wife and spending all his money in brothels and bars, playing the part of a dissolute retainer with no intention of exacting revenge. Lord Kira gradually relaxes as no threat from Asano’s men materialises: they were saving that for the third act.
The 47 Ronin is astonishingly good for its time — all of the performances are excellent, if occasionally a bit on the melodramatic side. The latter is probably understandable given the subject matter: any act of revenge by the ronin would result in punishment by death, so almost all the principal characters are aware for most of the film that they’re unlikely to survive. There are small cameos by the great Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, but the majority of the film is carried by Koshiro Matsumoto, who plays Oishi, the leader of the Ronin. His character is a lot like Shimura’s in The Seven Samurai — he manages his band of men expertly, keeping them in line while patiently watching the big picture.
See The 47 Ronin for an excellent adaptation of one of Japan’s most famous stories, presented in glorious colour by a talented director. If you enjoyed Musashi, this is an excellent follow-up!