Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Animeigo's 'The Loyal 47 Ronin' DVD

Animeigo claims their recent DVD release of Daiei’s ‘The Loyal 47 Ronin’ (1958) represents the best and most representative version of the dozens of 47 Ronin films and TV shows that have been released over the years-and it would be hard to argue with them. Produced during the ‘Golden Age’ of Japanese filmmaking, it features a cast loaded with familiar genre names, excellent color cinematography, and the gorgeous sets and costuming one expects from Japanese films of this era.

The film is solidly in the vein of traditional tellings of the 47 Ronin legend as performed in puppet plays, novels, and kabuki theater rather than attempting to portray the history behind the ‘feudal drive-by of lore’ (where the Ronin outnumbered Kira’s sleeping guards 47 to 3). While it’s beyond the scope of this review to detail the substantial differences between the legend and the reality, it shouldn’t diminish the enjoyment of viewers (even though the real story would probably make for a far more complex, multilayered, and entertaining film). For those who aren’t familiar with the legend, it’s the tale of the loyal retainers of a daimyo (Asano Naganori) sentenced to seppuku after he makes the mistake of attacking a corrupt Shogunal Minister Of Protocol (Kira Yoshinaka) inside Edo Castle. When Kira goes unpunished, many of the retainers band together under the leadership of Asano’s Chamberlain, Oishi Kuranosuke, to correct this imbalance of justice and avenge their lord. Director Watanabe Kunio infuses this version with more energy than most, making its central character Oishi a master swordsman who engages in several battles with Kira’s ‘hit squads’ and ninja agents during the course of the film. Kira is even more obnoxious, nasty, and spiteful than usual, and Asano more virtuous, long-suffering, and upright (quite unlike their historical reputations). Oishi’s feigned descent into womanizing and drinking along with several sidestories (mostly fictional and lifted, again, from kabuki and puppet theater) involving the other Ronin take center stage-many of which involve the Ronin trying to keep their composure when public opinion turns on them for not avenging Asano in a timely manner. It seems the entire population of Edo is aware of the ‘secret’ planned raid and continually egg on and encourage the Ronin to punch Kira’s ticket to the Pure Land! The emphasis is squarely on a samurai’s duty to his lord and bushido-all other duties, including those to wives, parents, siblings, children, in-laws, and friends, are shown as inconsequential when measured next to this. In turn, these slighted parties willingly and sometimes enthusiastically accept their fates. We found this approach an interesting contrast to more recent efforts involving the Ronin, such as the episode of ‘Abarenbo Shogun’ that features the single member of the 47 not sentenced to seppuku-Terasaka Kichiemon. In this episode, Terasaka roundly condemns his fellow Ronin and everyone connected to them for bringing so much tragedy and hardship to their families and those left behind. But this was 1958, and tradition was still a strong draw at the box office-The Loyal 47 Ronin was Japan’s highest grossing film for that year. It’s hard to imagine another film doing the ‘samurai honor’ angle better and more effectively. The film is even left on an upbeat note when the Ronin are shown marching with Kira’s head to Asano’s grave at Sengakuji-completely leaving out the not-so-glorious aftermath when they paid for their crimes with their lives.

For most samurai film fans, the big attraction here will be the cast. Genre favorites Ichikawa Raizo and Katsu Shintaro both make appearances and the rest of the cast features equally famous Japanese actors (who just aren’t as well known in the west). For example, Kurosawa regular Shimada Takashi (the leader of the Seven Samurai) has a role as Otake Jubei, the father in law of one of the ronin. Raizo turns in his usual solid, if abbreviated, performance as Asano Takumi-no-kami (Asano here is referred to by his title rather than name). He conveys well the increasing outrage and panic Asano feels while being insulted and fed misinformation by Kira in the course of learning proper etiquette and procedure for receiving the Emperor’s envoy. For those whose image of Katsu is the jovial Zatoichi, he’s almost unrecognizable as Akagaki Genzoemon (Genzo to his pals), one of the leaders of the Ronin who is disowned by his brother after stating that the former Asano retainers have no intention of pursuing vengeance (which, of course, is just a lie to keep the plot secret, although it seems everyone and their brother in the movie are aware of it). But by far the best performance in the film falls to Hasegawa Kazuo, who portrays Oishi. He brings just the right touch of pathos, steadfastness, tragedy, and even comedy to the role. When he commences his ‘cowardly drunken womanizer’ act in Kyoto in an effort to throw Kira’s spies off track, you’ll find yourself hating him even though you know it’s just a ruse. While he isn’t afforded the wonderful stirring pre-raid speech that Oishi usually gets in the live all-day versions of Chushingura, he still manages to dominate every scene he’s in.

As always, Animeigo has done a great job with the translation, packaging, and extras. Among the extras are trailers for Animeigo’s other 47 Ronin film (Ichikawa Kon’s 1994 effort) and one featuring a group that took their visual cue from the Ronin (the Shinsengumi, in Mifune Toshiro’s ‘Shinsengumi: Assassins of Honor’). There’s also an image gallery of b/w and color stills and publicity shots. An extensive cast and crew section gives biographies for the myriad of well known actors along with the director and composer. The historical notes (always a favorite feature of Animeigo releases among SA members) are the most extensive Animeigo has done to date for any DVD. While it regrettably uses Wikipedia’s largely inaccurate account (based on plays and novels rather than history) of Chushingura as a jumping off point, it redeems itself with a large helping of cultural notes and other historical background that explain plot points that might not be readily apparent to a Western audience (such as the significance of Buddhist funerary tablets, worldly and posthumous names, the personal nature of medicine caddies, etc).

With an all-star cast, first rate production values, the definitive version of a classic story, plenty of action, and Animeigo’s attention to the little things that fill out a well-done DVD release, The Loyal 47 Ronin should be on every samurai film buff’s shelf. At nearly three hours, it’s also a good value, being twice as long as the average film. It’s available through most major DVD retailers and also on the SA Store. Watching it will fill your heart with the samurai spirit, and you won’t even have to commit seppuku afterwards!

2 comments:

  1. I have heard that there will be an American film of the 47 Ronin starring Keannu Reeves. A surprising selection in my opinion.

    In the book "The Dog Shogun", author Beatrice Bodart-Bailey I fell describe the events of the 47 Ronin in a realistic and accurate way. Mainly how the story has been glorified as great samurai bushido and honor but in reality, the actions of all the ronin as well as their master were not entirely honorable.

    But still is a very, very interesting story and I would enjoy watching this movie and others on the subject. I am not sure about Keannu however.

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  2. Bodart-Bailey's book is indeed excellent-and along with Ronin scholar Henry Smith's articles and translations on the subject, represents the best information on the 47 Ronin available in English.
    It'll be interesting to see if the Keanu Reeves Ronin film goes anywhere and if it ends up following the plot or just taking the plotline and 'transplanting' it to the modern day west. Thankfully, we've been spared the George Clooney 'Seven Samurai' remake so far, so maybe this will follow the same path.

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