There are so many filmed versions of the classical Japanese tale of loyalty, The 47 Ronin—also known as Chushingura—that sometimes there is very little incentive to try another one. But then you see the name Ichikawa Kon in the title, one of the legendary “Four Knights” of Japanese film (along with Kurosawa Akira, Kobayashi Masaki, and Kinoshiita Keisuke), and you know it is worth your time.
Ichikawa’s version is almost the complete opposite of Inagaki Hiroshi’s famous sweeping epic Chushingura. Whereas Inagaki’s version is all wide-screen and big, Ichikawa’s story is intimate and personal. Inagaki filmed heroes. Ichikawa films men.
The story of the 47 Ronin is familiar, and generally needs no introduction. It is the Japanese equivalent of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, an actual historical event that has become so legendary that the true story has almost been lost. Young Lord Asano is provoked by Lord Kira in the Emperor’s court, and draws his sword in a violent but ultimately failed attack.
For this transgression, Asano is ordered to commit seppuki—ritual suicide known better in English as hara kiri— and his lands and castle are confiscated. Of his more than three hundred retainers, forty-seven decide to remain loyal, and bide their time for a year hiding their vengeance until one explosive winter night they assault the castle of Lord Kira to finish what their master had begun.
The 47 ronin have become so legendary that they are inhuman, each a living embodiment of cherished Japanese ideals of courage and loyalty. In this version Ichikawa strives to bring them back down to earth, to put blood back in the veins and make the heroes mortal. This makes for a less action-packed film, and there is very little sword swinging and bloodletting. Ichikawa’s film is much more a story of candlelit rooms, of long goodbyes to wives and sweethearts, of second thoughts and hopeless ambitions. Ichikawa was a notoriously pacifistic director, and so his take on such an inherently violent story is fascinating. (Even his title shows his feelings. Ichikawa’s original Japanese title (Shijushichinin no shikaku) translates as the 47 Assassins.
Leading the cast in this production is Takakura Ken, a household name in Japan but perhaps best known in the U.S. from his film Mr. Baseball. Takakura plays the leader of the 47 ronin, Oishi Kuranosuke, and his take is far from the stoic figure of legend. True to the story, Oishi feigns a man who has abandoned his duty for a life of pleasure, all while secretly plotting revenge. But this Oishi has truly fallen in love with a young a beautiful entertainer, and their scenes are some of the most touching I have seen in any production of this famous tale.
Animeigo’s release of Kon Ichikawa’s 47 Ronin is up to their usual excellent standards. Animeigo offers a unique style of subtitles, where the dialog is subtitled with supertitled (above screen) cultural notes and explanations. I always appreciate this, as I feel I learn so much from the added information. There is also a “limited subtitle” option, which only subtitles the background signs and written Japanese ideal for anyone studying the language who would like to give the film go in Japanese. It seems like they should have added a third option without the supertitles, as they can distract from someone who just wants to watch the film but unfortunately this is not an option.
The DVD also includes extensive historical notes and program notes to learn more about the complex and interesting story.
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.