The Loyal 47 Ronin
In the annals of 20th century
Japanese cinema only one name comes close to rivalling that of Akira
Kurosawa: Kenji Mizoguchi.
As prolific as he was influential,
Mizoguchi directed over 100 films in his lifetime and was amongst the
first Japanese filmmakers to have their work viewed in the West. He won
numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including the International
Ward and two Silver Lions at Venice, but the pinnacle of his creative
output was undoubtedly his two-part, four hour masterpiece The Loyal
47 Ronin of the Genroku Era, known in the West by the slightly
truncated title above or simply as The 47 Ronin.
The story of the 47 ronin is an integral
part of traditional Japanese lore. In the feudal society of 1701 a
dispute arose between Lord Asano and the elder Lord Kira. Asano
subsequently made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of his superior
and was sentenced to death by hara-kiri. This outcome relegated his
bodyguards to the inferior status of ronin, or masterless samurai, and
plunged both Asanoís house and his legacy into disrepair. Under the
instruction of the former samurai Oishi the swordsmen plotted their
final act of revenge against Kira, knowing full well that they
themselves would likewise be required to commit suicide as a direct
repercussion of the bloodshed.
Funded by the Japanese government as a
propaganda piece and intended to galvanise the nation in the weeks
preceding Japanís involvement in World War II, The Loyal 47 Ronin
is nonetheless a thoughtful, deeply measured and visually splendid
dissertation on duty and loyalty. Mizoguchiís depiction of historyís
most famous evocation of bushido, the samurai code of honour, is both
cerebral and compelling, and the film moves determinedly at its own
languid pace, introducing and dispatching characters, dealing with the
day-to-day intricacies of its protagonists lives and bringing new
information to light in a way that is graceful and unhurried.
Part of Madmanís Directorís Suite, both
parts of the film feature audio commentary by Adrian Martin, the Senior
Research Fellow of Film and Television Studies at Monash University.
Though he jokes early on about needing to talk slowly to fill up the
four hours Martin doesnít run dry of insights, and clearly has both a
great knowledge and substantial regard for the film. Over the course of
his commentary he covers every aspect of the production at some length
including its scene constructions, acting, camerawork, political
context, critical reception, music and mise en scene, and
Martinís observations and comprehensive deconstructions are invaluable
to anyone with more than a passing interest in the work of this
distinctive and uniquely talented filmmaker.
The Loyal 47 Ronin wonít appeal to
everyone. Itís a stately composition, and makes extensive use of long,
slow shots in its supremely detailed study of the characters and
personalities involved in this intriguing period of Japanese history.
For those who can find the time to savour it however itís a resplendent,
technically accomplished and highly rewarding work, and undoubtedly
stands as one of the classics of 20th century Japanese