THE 47 RONIN (1941) | REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: Jul 13
How Mizoguchi Turned Propaganda Into A Samurai Masterpiece
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Cast: Tokusaburo Arashi, Chôjûrô Kawarasaki, Kanemon Nakamura, Kunitaro Kawarazaki
Related films: Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion
The 47 Ronin: Dispiriting Samurai Fans Since 1941
The 47 Ronin’s story of honor and devotion was perfect for propaganda. So, the Japanese Home Ministry ordered Shochiku Studios to make a film of it. But why would Mizoguchi, an advocate of equality and democracy, accept such a task?
Somehow, he constructed a version of The 47 Ronin that celebrated Japanese nationalism but subdued warmongering messaging. Mizoguchi followed orders and glorified self-sacrifice, but he did so in the most understated way imaginable.
The 47 Ronin was intended to boost the morale of the Japanese troops. It probably didn’t become what the Home Ministry expected. But as long as it ended in self-sacrifice, a three-and-a-half-hour sacrament of Japanese culture was good enough.
Mizoguchi embraced his artistic ambitions and turned The 47 Ronin into an unparalleled display of ceremonial filmmaking. His celebration of traditional Japanese aesthetics has fascinated and annoyed film fans ever since.
In all honesty, The 47 Ronin is an excruciating watch. It crawls along in snail-pace with little to no action. The story develops as much off- as on-screen, yet, there is something hypnotizing about the film.
Why was The 47 Ronin so Famous?
For one, the legend of The Loyal 47 Retainers of the Genroku Era was as famous in Japan as the story of Robin Hood was in Europe. It was told, re-told, and imagined in literature, theater, woodblock printing, television, and cinema.
The story wasn’t unique, and Mizoguchi wasn’t the first to make a film of it. However, his film style became unlike anything else when he took inspiration from kabuki and scroll paintings. It was a testament to Japanese slow-paced storytelling.
The cinematography in The 47 Ronin was so distinct that film researcher Darrel William Davis wrote a book about it. Davis saw a new film paradigm in the making, which he dubbed «Monumental Style».
Davis argued that The 47 Ronin and a handful of other films displayed an original style. Though all these films put forth the idea of «Japaneseness», meaning that Japanese culture has some unique quality, their cinematography spoke for itself.
In other words, all so-called monumental films were seemingly propagandist or driven by nationalist ideals. That said, the film style they developed turned out exceptional.
Today, people would probably label The 47 Ronin an arthouse film, which is misleading since it was far from a hipster flick. If anything, Mizoguchi’s picturesque filmmaking was closer to Japanese art traditions than anyone before, or after.
The Story of The 47 Ronin in a Nutshell
The story of The 47 Ronin was straightforward. When Lord Asano refused to accept bribery from a member of the Shogun’s court, they decided that his house (clan) would be abolished. The good lord lost his cool and attacked a court member in a rage fit.
Not surprisingly, Lord Asano was sentenced to commit seppuku (hara-kiri) for his offense. As such, his house was falling apart. One year later, only 47 of his most loyal retainers remained. Together, they planned to exact their revenge.
The 47 ronin’s biggest challenge was approaching the corrupt court member at the right time. To set the scene for assassination, they applied for the reinstatement of Asano’s house. This way, they could get an audience with their court member of choice.
Contrary to their plan, however, the people favored their proposal and effectively closed their window of opportunity. Therefore, the 47 retainers killed their master’s enemy in the open.
According to the law of the land, this meant that the lot of them were condemned to commit seppuku. Having successfully avenged their master, they were happy to comply. It all ended in mass suicide, which all 47 willingly accepted with happy grins and calm hearts.
Producing Film Paradigms
The story of The 47 Ronin didn’t need any embellishment. It was well-known among the Japanese public. So instead of reimagining the mass suicide, Mizoguchi based his iteration on a kabuki version of the story. The result was highly theatrical.
Furthermore, he took inspiration from Japanese painting styles and poetry. The idea was to make the audience perceive the essence of Japanese traditional aesthetics. He made bold choices that paid off and made The 47 Ronin a Japanese film classic.
Since the underlying message was predetermined, it hardly stood out from other propaganda films. The film style and atmosphere, on the other hand, were unlike most other Japanese movies, both before and after The 47 Ronin.
The 47 Ronin’s First Legacy: Monumental Style
According to Davis, Mizoguchi based the cinematography in The 47 Ronin on trends from Japanese indigenous traditions. The film style was applied to re-create age-old atmospheres, not to underline forced propagandist messages.
There’s a fine line between nationalism and propaganda, of course. The point was that the long shots, long takes, and slow camera (among other features) didn’t reinforce the propagandist storyline but rather obscured and put it out of sight.
Mizoguchi’s sequences were long-winded, evasive, and brooding. The film style took after Kabuki and Japanese screen paintings (Yamato-e) and seemed to celebrate Japanese art traditions while downplaying support for Japan's war effort.
Mizoguchi was caught between a rock and a hard place. He had to promote the Japanese honor codex though it went against his beliefs. As a result, his war promotion became so restrained that it induced yawns in all but film historians and the Home Ministry.
The film style stood out, though, so much so that Davis argued that The 47 Ronin created its own film paradigm together with a few other Japanese films. He called this paradigm Monumental Style, a term he derived from renowned film historian David Bordwell.
The 47 Ronin’s Second Legacy: Japanese Cinimalism
Some of the stylistic features discussed by Davis were present in more Japanese films than The 47 Ronin and its monumental peers. In fact, long takes, long shots, and slow camera movements are an integral part of Japanese films of all genres.
Granted, these features are more prominent in melodramas and period films, but they also appear to a lesser extent in comedies, thrillers, j-horror, science fiction, arthouse films, and anime.
These features are so prevalent in Japanese cinema that we at JCA think they are a central part of Japanese film style in general. Therefore, we’ve come up with our theory, arguing that these features are integral to the Japanese film paradigm, aka Japanese cinimalism.
The 47 Ronin might have shaped or enforced Japanese cinimalism in its time. However, due to the film’s background and highly deliberate cinematography, it is too singular to use as a prime example of a Japanese film paradigm.
That said, if you wonder what Japanese Cinimalism is all about, you can give The 47 Ronin a watch. It might very well be the most exaggerated joining of Japanese traditional aesthetics and filmmaking ever made.
Honor & Sacrifice | The 47 Ronin Analysis
What’s the point of analyzing a film spawned from propagandist motivations? Well, it’s curious that The 47 Ronin didn’t feel particularly nationalistic. I, for one, would never have thought it was intended to boost military morale.
Considering Mizoguchi’s film tendencies before and after the war, he clearly embraced democracy and equality. So why did he agree to make The 47 Ronin? Because his studio - Shochiku - might have been shut down if he didn’t.
The Japanese Home Ministry was dissatisfied with Shochiku’s support of Japan’s war efforts. If the studio didn’t buckle up and make some grade-a propaganda, the Home Ministry threatened with foreclosure.
In other words, Mizoguchi took one for the team and made a propaganda film that didn’t coincide with his beliefs. He downplayed propagandist messages, though, and instead glorified Japanese traditional aesthetics.
An example of Mizoguchi’s undermining of warmongering was his choice to keep the climactic mass-suicide off-screen. In addition, he focused on a scene in which a girl called Omino tried to meet one of the 47 ronin one last time.
After much persuasion, including Omino’s questioning of the importance of samurai honor, she was allowed to see the ronin. After that, she committed ritual suicide to hide their love affair and keep the 47 ronin’s revenge untainted, pure, and honorable.
According to Kevin Thomas (LA Times), by highlighting Omino’s misfortune, Mizoguchi denounced the importance of the mass suicide and underlined the tragedy of it all.
Thomas might have been on to something, especially since Mizoguchi made The 47 Ronin under the Home Ministry’s thumb. That said, no matter how much the main message was downplayed, self-sacrifice was still employed to save face.
The 47 Ronin might not have become a fanfare for the Japanese troops, but the Home Ministry approved. The message that death was preferable to losing face stood as firm as ever after Mizoguchi’s film and continued to do so in Japan for decades.
Japanese suicide rates were sky-high until the early 2000s but have since declined. Mizoguchi should be applauded for trying to distort Japanese wartime propaganda, but concealing suicide with another suicide still seemed like a strange choice.
After all, Mizoguchi took liberties with the original story. Therefore it stands to reason that he could just as easily have deflected attention away from self-sacrifice by conjuring some other ill-fated turn of events for Omino.
Frankly speaking, the whole Omino-sequence slowed the narrative’s forward momentum to a crawl. Mizoguchi’s intentions might have been good, but throwing a lovers’ tragedy into the mix hindered the storytelling more than enhanced it.
The Japanese codex of honor is an age-old cornerstone of Japanese culture and society. Honor fueled the samurai’s bushido; it made the imperial troops fearless and enforced suicidal tendencies.
Mizoguchi might have tried to subdue it in The 47 Ronin, but the message of honor before the individual was clearly stated nonetheless. He might have succeeded in distancing his film from military efforts, but the overall message was still highly questionable.
Subjectively Speaking | The 47 Ronin Review
Honestly, I struggled to keep my eyes open the first time I saw The 47 Ronin. Ten years later, with many samurai films and books on Japanese cinema under my belt, it was much more palatable.
Although the story engaged, for the most part, The 47 Ronin narrative would have benefitted from a few trimmings. For instance, the sequence about a lowly retainer and his son trying to join the clan, only to be denied, was rather unnecessary.
Likewise, I found the side story about Omino superfluous. It was kind of sweet when she snuck in to see her lover one last time, but the suspense dropped when attention was directed away from the main plot for too long.
Cutting these two sequences would have resulted in better-kept tension and tighter storytelling. That said, the trims would only amount to 20 minutes, which means that most of the film was well-planned and executed, especially for its time.
The 47 Ronin was still dragging in some parts, but Mizoguchi’s handcraft was undeniably pristine. Creative camera angles, picturesque sets, stunning costumes, and strong acting turned The 47 Ronin into a Japanese classic.
Most scenes are like Japanese paintings brought to life. Noh theater sequences, flute playing, funeral rites, traditional singing, and highly ceremonial dialogues further enhanced the palpable ambiance.
Mizoguchi’s ambitions went beyond the propagandist catalyst that spun the production in motion. He found an angle that pleased the film’s commissioners and let him express his artistic ideas simultaneously. The result was timeless.
Final Verdict for The 47 Ronin
The 47 Ronin is an acquired taste. Unless you are familiar with samurai films, Japanese history, and the underpinnings of Japanese society, it will surely fly over your head and well below your entertainment expectations.
The 47 Ronin is an exercise in film-watching endurance, but it's also undeniably original. Not that Mizoguchi re-invented the wheel, but the droning cinematography and morose atmosphere make for a hypnotic movie-watching experience.
It’s not a recommended entryway into the world of Japanese cinema, but every serious fan of Japanese period films should have The 47 Ronin under their belt. Not many films in history spiked the debate about Japanese cinema to this extent.
David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema: Mizoguchi: Secrets of the exquisite image
Harvard Film Archive: The Tales and Tragedies of Kenji Mizoguchi
Los Angeles Times: A Closer Look at a Japanese Master
The Film Sufi: «The 47 Ronin» - Kenji Mizoguchi (1941-42)
The New Yorker: Better Than Ozu and Kurosawa: Mizoguchi
Senses of Cinema: Mizoguchi, Kenji
Syversen, Robin: Rearticulating Japanese Cinematic Style