The Loyal 47 Ronin

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

By Fred Camper

Most film aficionados outgrow discussions of the “greatest films of all time.” Not me. For more than a decade I’ve had three favorites. Stan Brakhage’s Arabics, a series of abstract silent films of perpetually shifting colors and shapes and spaces, is one; another is Roberto Rossellini’s mystical, expansive personal documentary India. And the third is Kenji Mizoguchi’s two-part, four-hour Genroku Chushingura (usually translated as “The Loyal 47 Ronin of the Genroku Era”), being shown in Chicago for the first time in several years this weekend at the Film Center.

Great narrative films, whether from Hollywood or France or Japan, are often searing because their visual style articulates the story’s emotions, interpreting and intensifying the drama. The same may be said of Mizoguchi’s 1941-’42 film, but individual characters’ emotions are seldom as important as they are in other films. Mizoguchi uses few close-ups, and the camera never seems to encourage identification with a character’s inner life. Instead Mizoguchi creates music in space through slow, deliberate, magisterial long takes.

The film is based on a famous historical incident, one that inspired numerous 18th- and 19th-century Japanese plays and at least 20 films and so is well-known to Japanese audiences; told elliptically here, it could prove confusing at first. In 1701, a century after the Tokugawa shogunate ended the samurai wars, the samurai and their codes of honor began to decline in the face of a growing mercantile culture and its laws. At this time two lords at the shogun’s castle in Tokyo (then called Edo) were designated to receive envoys from Kyoto. Kira had failed to instruct the younger and less experienced Asano in proper court etiquette, probably because Asano hadn’t offered him the customary bribe. On the third day of the envoy’s visit, Asano overheard Kira insult his knowledge of protocol, and it is with this incident that the film begins.

Drawing his sword, Asano wounds Kira slightly. And for violating the shogun’s castle with swordplay, Asano is sentenced to commit seppuku, or hara-kiri. The sentence is appealed using the argument that Asano acted according to samurai code, but to no avail. He kills himself, to his wife’s grief, and his retainers are stripped of their rights and become ronin: masterless samurai. After some debate they express their loyalty to Oishi, Asano’s chief steward, because he indicates he’ll never stop thinking of revenge on Kira. At first Oishi does nothing, dissipating himself in bordellos. The ronin bide their time, waiting for the right moment, and eventually (after one year historically, three years in the film) 47 of them attack Lord Kira’s home and kill him. They too are sentenced to commit seppuku, which they do at the film’s end.

Mizoguchi represents the mass seppuku partly as a human tragedy but mostly as an act of great honor: the men are proud to be allowed to kill themselves rather than receive the less honorable fate of being hung. Here, as throughout the film, the script records the conflicts between the traditional samurai ethos and the newly dominant system of courts and laws; Oishi, torn between them, follows samurai code in avenging his lord but insists that his men await the judgment of the courts instead of disemboweling themselves at Asano’s grave.

This story of lives devoted to revenge might sound ridiculous to Westerners–in the retelling it sounds ridiculous to me. But Mizoguchi brings the tale to life with a visual style as grandly expressive and as perfect as any I’ve seen. He makes no concessions to his audience in this four-hour film with perhaps three close-ups–and indeed, the expensive production was a big flop at the time of its release. Piecing together long takes, some five minutes or more, Mizoguchi gives the film the architectural integrity of a great building, systematically integrating the movements and blocking of characters, narrative events, and the compositions and camera movements.

There’s very little action. The initial swordplay lasts only a few seconds, and we learn of the attack on Kira’s home through the account Asano’s widow receives of it, thus experiencing it through her response. Indeed, the film has far more conversation than action. In a typical scene the camera might follow a character into a room, become still as the character sits and begins to talk, and then move slowly during the conversation. Yet this minimal movement both intensifies the emotions of the scene and, at times, anticipates some action to come. Even more important, the camera shifts to change emotional emphasis, bringing the words spoken by one character to rest on another who’s only gradually included in the frame. But even when the camera is static, the compositions are alive. Static shots recording conversations typically tend to become invisible as we concentrate on the dialogue and the characters’ faces, but here each static shot creates a dynamic: each new second with no movement adds emotional intensity and suspense.

Characters are defined through their social roles, a fact apparent not only in their actions but in the movements of the camera. Throughout the film characters bow, kneel, and crouch before others. In Oishi’s first meeting in years with Lady Asano, she invites him to “come closer”; he does but still never crosses the threshold of her room, and the conversation is played out with a physical and symbolic divide between them. In one composition we first see Lady Asano speaking alone, then the camera pulls back slowly to include Oishi. Again and again camera movements shift the emphasis–singling out an individual on rare occasions but more often widening the context: the ethos of this film is very different from that of the Western melodrama. While Hollywood films are often driven by a character’s emotions (not to mention those driven by robots), this film is driven by the audience’s sure knowledge of the conclusion and of its meaning: individual lives are most significant when they serve the codes of the entire culture.

An emotional climax ends the first part, when Oishi’s wife leaves her apparently dishonored, dissipated husband and returns home with her father and two youngest children, an action depicted in one of Mizoguchi’s longest takes. First we see mother and children enter sedan chairs; then, as they’re carried off, the older son steps into the midground, observing their departure; soon Oishi steps into the frame, closer to the camera than his son but still distant, also observing the departure. The travelers’ road recedes into a forest; soon few signs of movement can be seen, but father and son remain, backs to us, wordlessly looking into the distance. This is a far different representation of emotion than the usual close-up; unable to see the characters’ faces, the audience is nevertheless asked to provide the feeling. Mizoguchi is less concerned with the individual psychological reactions of Oishi and his son than he is with what any father and son would feel; this contributes to the film’s epic dimensions.

Indeed, the film’s central conflict is the one between individual emotions and adherence to traditional codes. Oishi’s separation from his family is represented as a tragedy that results not from fatal flaws of character but from the story’s inexorable logic. Of course the conflict between individual desires and social constraints is a staple of Western art as well; the difference is that here all personal desires are finally subordinated to social codes. Just before the final mass seppuku, a young woman who’d loved one of the samurai appears, pleading to see him so that she can know if their love was true. There’s a tremendous tension between her longing and the conclusion we know is inevitable, but the last we see of her is not her emotional gratification–though that does occur–but her own seppuku, as she in effect takes her place alongside the 47.

The film’s carefully choreographed camera movements are related to Japanese architecture of the period, which is elaborately reconstructed in the film. As happens so often in Mizoguchi films, elevated platforms, often on wooden poles in the ground, or forbidden rooms articulate hierarchical social relationships. Mizoguchi’s camera, documenting the shifting relationships of characters to each other and to the architecture, constantly reconfigures each character in new and wider contexts.

The camera work also creates an almost fatalistic rhythm. Tensions that must eventually be resolved are set up as characters move closer to the camera or to each other. Many of the compositions are just a little unbalanced, as if they were on the verge of transforming into something else. Even static frames use diagonals and unequal positioning of characters to make the scene seem poised on a knife-edge, ready to tip–ready to become a moving shot, as images so often do here. In this most symmetrical of films, the unequal size or position of a character sets up strange, subtle imbalances. The way the static camera begins to move slowly only to become static again results in a kind of searching rhythm.

The film doesn’t reach its emotional apex until near the end, when Lady Asano hears that at last Lord Kira has been killed; this is followed by the graveside scene in which the ronin present Kira’s head to Asano. Outside the context of the film, the whole murderous, vengeful affair would be deplorable. But at the moment when Lady Asano learns of Kira’s death, I not only felt with her but broke down in tears, because this is the resting place toward which all the film’s imbalances have been pointing. Allying his camera with traditional Japanese values of loyalty and obedience, Mizoguchi made me feel that Kira’s death was what was needed to restore order to the universe.

In 1941 and 1942 Japan was already engaged in a brutal imperialist war–before Pearl Harbor there was the small matter of its bloody invasion of China. The Japanese military authorities demanded propaganda films, and Mizoguchi readily acceded. He has been accused of opportunism by recent historians–he was a leftist when that suited, a democrat when Japan turned democratic. Certainly Genroku Chushingura served the war with its message of obedience even to death and with its formal, stately imagery depicting individual honor only in the context of a larger social order. In that sense this sublime film was made in the service of evil ends.

But our challenge, after seeing a film in its historical context, is to make something of it for ourselves. First of all, we can’t necessarily accept a film’s values merely because it moves us. At the same time, we should try to see the film in all its dimensions. As Mizoguchi’s camera constantly destabilizes the film’s images, he creates a poetics of space far more general than the specific values of the story. The issues he poses–of the balance between an individual and the social code, between emotion and tradition–are still with us, albeit in different forms. And as we watch one of his intense static compositions, focusing emotion momentarily on one character, transform into a moving shot that reframes the characters or introduces new ones, creating a new context, it becomes clear that the relationship between an individual and his culture is in part the result of the way we see space itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.