Movie Impressions: The Loyal 47 Ronin

Before viewing The Loyal 47 Ronin, or Chushingura, as it’s lovingly referred to in its native tongue, I had no idea that it was actually one of the most popular tales to adapt into a film in all of Japan. Traditionally, the movies are usually all-out affairs that production companies love to spend big budgets on in order to make them a success. AnimEigo has released a 1958 version of the classic tale, which was created by major Japanese studio Daiei. Though to many it may seem like another, run-of-the-mill samurai tale, fans of the story (based on factual events) and the many forms it has taken will find that this release is one of the better options available on DVD.

The Loyal 47 Ronin’s opens with Lord Asano of Ako Castle making the rounds at ceremonies being held over at Edo Castle. As a man with almost unlimited self-respect, Asano outright refuses to bribe Lord Kira of Edo for advice, as Kira happens to be a court official who will only divulge important information if Asano pays up. Because of his pigheaded and rather selfish nature, Kira publicly humiliates and ridicules the upright Lord Asano, as it appears he believes that running a fellow lord’s name through the dirt is the quickest way to get anything accomplished. Though Asano is initially not swayed, he gives in to his more tribal urges and draws his sword. However, the drawing of a sword is considered a grave offense in these times, and so the Shogun calls for Asano to commit seppuku. While Asano has taken his life, Kira walks away with but a slap on the wrist.

With the death of Lord Asano, the members of the Asano Clan are beside themselves with hatred for the corrupt Lord Kira. They vow that they will take Kira’s head in return for forcing their beloved master to commit seppuku. However, Oishi, Asano’s servant, seems to have taken the incident with a grain of salt. He chooses to surrender the Asano property to Lord Kira and the clan is split up with not even one more mention of the tragedy that befell Lord Asano. The loyal ronin of the movie’s title are simply appalled with Oishi’s behavior – how could he sit idly by and let such a disgrace loom over everyone’s heads? Where you’ll find true suspense is within the following conundrum – is Oishi truly planning diabolical revenge on the corrupt Lord Kira, or is he content to move on from the occurrence without question? It’s quite obvious that the movie couldn’t possibly end without some sort of resolution, so of course Oishi is busy plotting Kira’s downfall.I won’t spoil the ending, but what you can expect is a payoff that will leave you quite satisfied at the situation’s outcome.

While billed as an action-packed epic, The Loyal 47 Ronin feels much more like a political drama at times, due to the stark contrast between the tyrannical Kira’s misdeeds and calculating Oishi’s inevitable revenge. Though he is completely dedicated to his wife and family, in order to get to Kira, he must put himself in some rather precarious positions. We watch as he makes a show of supposed debauchery he has committed in order to convince spies working for Kira that he is most certainly up to no good. All the while, he must keep his plans safe from the samurai who would have given their lives to see their master’s untimely death avenged. Kazuo Hasegawa presents a veritable kaleidoscope of emotions, giving us a glimpse of a man who must pretend to be blissfully unaware of the crime that Kira has committed, all the while planning for his demise – playing the role of a calculating individual who wants nothing more than to see Asano’s death paid for in full. While the action isn’t exactly full-throttle, it’s this sort of psychological play that really drew me into the film.

Clocking in at 166 minutes, The Loyal 47 Ronin will take some time to wade through. Admittedly, slower parts may be a turnoff to those of you who expect heads to roll instantaneously. If you can wait it out, the tension and the plot Oishi devises is absolutely worth devouring.

The film is presented in gorgeous, rich color in 16:9 presentation. While the picture isn’t exactly crisp as you might expect, there is a gorgeous softness about the picture that adds almost a dreamlike quality to the film. There is no English dub option (thankfully), and AnimEigo has provided the option to use either white or yellow subtitles and the ability to choose if you are given full subs, signpost displays, or only dialogue. The scripting has been thoroughly inspected and is free of spelling errors, which I find to run rampant on many older samurai releases that I have viewed. These are exemplary subtitles, which means quite a lot since (unless you understand Japanese) you must rely on them to propel the story.

I cannot vouch for the previous or newer renditions of Chushingura, but this was a thoroughly enjoyable and slick presentation. AnimEigo has done a fantastic job in releasing this intriguing story to the English-speaking population, and the tale has been represented so well here tht I am tempted to track down other versions to compare and contrast. I highly recommend Chushingura to any fans of the shogunate era, or simply viewers who would love to take part in a good tale of well-deserved revenge. They just don’t make films like these anymore, at home or abroad, and The Loyal 47 Ronin is a refreshing change of pace.

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