THE 47 RONIN (1941)
Updated: Mar 16
One of the most iconic films in the history of Japanese cinema!
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast: Tokusaburo Arashi, Chôjûrô Kawarasaki, Kanemon Nakamura, Kunitaro Kawarazaki
Related films: Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, 47 Ronin, Hana - The tale of a Reluctant Samurai
The Loyal 47 Retainers of the Genroku Era (L47 for short) is noted as one of Japan’s ultimate film treasures. As the title suggests, it can be a bit of a challenge though. The film spans more than three and a half hour - with no action what so ever. Still, the flawless film-making and unique atmosphere makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.
The film is a testament to Japanese slow-paced storytelling. The cinematography is so distinctive that film researcher Darrel William Davis wrote a book about it. (An awesome read - found at Amazon) He argued that L47 and a handful of other films displayed the core principals of a new film paradigm called «Monumental Style».
The story is straightforward and easy to follow. When Lord Asano refuse to accept bribery from a member of the Shogun’s court, his house (clan) is declared set for abolition. In a fit of rage he attacks the court member and is sentenced to commit seppuku (hara-kiri). As such, his house is falling apart.
One year later, only 47 of his most loyal retainers remain. Together they plan to exact their revenge. The biggest challenge is to approach the corrupt court member at the right time. In a tactical attempt - to set the scene for an assassination - they apply for the reinstatement of Asano’s house. This way they can get an audience with their court member of choice.
Contrary to their plan, the people are in favor of their proposal, which closes their window of opportunity. The 47 retainers therefore set forth and kill their master’s enemy in the open. According to the law of the land this means that the lot of them are condemned to commit seppuku. Having successfully revenged their master they are happy to comply, and perform a mass suicide with a smile on their lips and calm in their hearts.
Between the lines
The story of the loyal 47 is a traditional Japanese tale that was already playing in theaters when the film was released. The popularity of this particular story in the early 1940’s was due to its potential message of Japanese nationalism. According to Davis, the Mizoguchi version makes sacrament of Japanese traditions and perceptions.
Mizoguchi assumed that everybody knew the story, and therefore tried to apply a somewhat unfamiliar approach. This led to him to take direct inspiration from Japanese painting styles, theater and poetry. The idea was to make the audience perceive the essence of Japanese traditional aesthetics and religion.
The Japanese code of honor within the family and the workplace is as palpable in this film as in any of the so-called monumental style films of Japan. Arguably such notions of honor still prevail in Japanese society, though the level and form of it naturally have changed a lot since the 1940’s.
Admittedly it was somewhat challenging to see the whole film in one sitting. For the most part the narrative and story was engaging, but as a whole, L47 would probably benefit from some slight trimmings. For instance, there was a somewhat unnecessary sequence about a lowly retainer and his son trying to join the clan in their revenge plans, only to be denied.
Likewise, there was a side story about a young woman dressing up like a man in hope of being able to see the love of her life one last time. This did not add anything to the narrative momentum. The sentiment was understandable, but the suspense dropped when attention was directed away from the main plot for too long. The cutting of these two sequences would make for better maintained tension and tighter storytelling.
The suggested trimmings don’t add up to more than 20 minutes though. In this context this means that most of the film was very well planned and executed, especially for its time. Not to forget the cinematography. Creative camera angles, picturesque sets, stunning costumes and story-telling that favors the patient are all elements that makes L47 deserve its reputation as a Japanese classic.
Most scenes are like beautiful images taken from Japanese paintings. If paused at random, odds are that most frames would provide a still worthy of hanging on your living room wall. Adding to the special ambiance are scenes with Noh Theater, flute playing, funeral rites, traditional singing and dialogues of highly ceremonial manner.
In short, this is not a recommended entryway into the world of Japanese film. Prior knowledge of Japanese society and culture is almost required to fully understand and enjoy The Loyal 47 Retainers of the Genroku Era. That being said, it is also a true classic that every serious fan of Japanese cinema should have under their belt.
There doesn’t really exist any decent versions of this film for sale, either on physical formats or other. There are some DVD’s to be found, but these are only listed for serious collectors. Fingers crossed there will be made another Mizoguchi box set in which this film is included.