Review of The 47 Ronin (1941/1942)

Moving picture, 4.0 hours

Seen in 2017.

Quite poor subtitles.

The effort of 47 vassals to avenge the unfair sentencing of their lord to suicide in 1701, by killing the man their lord attacked.

An intellectual interpretation of the seven “new kabuki” style Chūshingura plays by Mayama Seika, started in 1934 (source: Henry D. Smith II, “Rethinking the Story of the 47 Ronin: Chūshingura in the 1980s” (1990)). Mayama was still writing these plays when Mizoguchi Kenji made the first part of this film, and was planning to continue writing them. Mayama’s last, Sengakuji no Ichinichi, premiered within days of Mizoguchi’s first.

No lethal violence takes place on screen. This is in contrast to popular depictions of the story, and the wishes of the Japanese military who commissioned the work. By a similar token, all other potentially salacious elements of the story, including where Ōishi devotes himself to drink and debauchery to throw off suspicion, are also marginalized. Mizoguchi’s austerity exceeds Mayama’s: In the 1941 play Sengakuji no Ichinichi, “The priests, to whom the taking of life should be anathema, are eager to hear details of the attack” (Brian Powell, Kabuki In Modern Japan: Mayama Seika And His Plays (1990), p. 155; I’ve not read the plays).

Part 2 (1942) was apparently made in protest against Imperial fascism. Instead of showing the attack on Kira’s Edo mansion, it has Asano’s widow and her ladies-in-waiting reading a letter describing the results, and weeping. As if to further deny the audience any sensual pleasure, the film is composed almost entirely in long and medium-long shot, with less than a handful of medium shots (starting at the waist) and absolutely no close-ups. The individual takes are often long, but rarely completely static; the tracking work is very nice.

In line with the dryness of this rendition, it is also a bad way to get acquainted with the 47 rōnin as a cultural touchstone. A basic synopsis of the story comes only a quarter of an hour into the second part, where it is finally stated that the shogun dislikes popular lords out of suspicion (implicitly of usurpation), which explains why he favoured Kira and set the plot in motion. Mizoguchi’s focus is on uniformly boring details of abstruse ethics, echoing the crusty Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s complaint that the 47 should have attacked immediately and been satisfied to die fighting, instead of concerning themselves with the worldly success of their mission, delaying and risking the death of Kira by some other cause.

The climactic last half hour of the second part of the film, like Mayama’s first (1934) play in his series, revolves around the love of Isogai and Omino, two characters never mentioned earlier, their courtship and wedding having been omitted from the linear narrative until they are introduced and speak of it, mere hours from death. Mayama’s literal theatricality is not meaningfully adapted to film, as if the director were purposely denying pleasure to the audience to punish the military or the viewing bourgeoisie, who did not rebel.

References here: Japan’s Longest Day (1967).

moving picture Japanese production fiction