Criterion Prediction #80: The 47 Ronin, by Alexander Miller

15 Mar

Title: The 47 Ronin, Parts 1 & 2

Year: 1941

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Cast: Yoshizaburo Arashi, Utaemon Ichikawa, Daisuke Katô, Chôjûrô Kawarasaki, Kunitaro Kawarazaki, Seizaburô Kawazu

Synopsis: Honorable Daimyo (feudal lord) Asano Naganori is coerced into committing seppuku after quarreling with corrupt shogunate official Kira Yoshinaka. In the shadow of Asano’s death, his retainers, branded as Ronin (aka masterless samurai), plan and execute a daring revenge plot against Kira by storming his mansion and killing him.

Critique: Kenji Mizoguchi’s allegorical wartime fable is one of Japanese cinema’s high standards in screen artistry. Mizoguchi’s masterful style seems often ignored; he’s the restrained, painterly director whose ascension alongside Ozu and Kurosawa is overlooked for not being the self-disciplined champion of delicate, familial observations or the unapologetically westernized adventurer. His cinema is one of elegiac contrasts in theme and style – his brilliant two-part conceptualization of The 47 Ronin is riveting in its stillness and de-dramatized brevity that makes it a challenging revelation over seventy-five years since its release.

This iteration begets a plethora of interpretations ranging from social to political, as well as the dynamic within the story itself, which has a mythic quality although based on actual events. Due to its legendary stature, The 47 Ronin or the Ako Incident is such a cultural touchstone the term Chūshingura is used to identify the fictional iterations opposed to the real account.

The tale of the 47 Ronin is one of action, sacrifice, honor, duty, and the act of revenge against a figure of corruption and duplicity, in applying that, and the aesthetic inertia (much of the “action” takes place offscreen) to the wartime climate, it can be psychologically flooring.

Mizoguchi calculates the overture to combat the rituals and traditions of the honor-bound samurai, the proclivity toward self-sacrifice, fatalism, and the relevance of the self-governed psyche as well as that of a group mentality.

Kohei Sugiyama’s cinematography evokes kabuki classicalism, and if we’re operating on a cultural odometer, he adheres to the mold of Japanese cinema but isn’t bound by it either. Content to realize the metaphysical themes alongside the literal context, the scenes unfurl in one take, as we swoop in from an omniscient overhead shot to angular static compositions. He contrasts arrangements where interiors have a stagey, elaborate sense of enclosure, and yet there’s a liberating freedom in the uncomplicated pageantry to Mizoguchi’s mise-en-scene, deliberate but enlivened. The crux of both parts of The 47 Ronin lies in its wonderfully balanced sense of contrast – and its cumulative effect requires some patience but this films sustained power will stay with you.

Why it Belongs in the Collection: Before countless streaming services and Amazon becoming a movie studio, there was the IFC Channel. And every Saturday morning mattered to a certain young man as it was “Samurai Saturday”. Of course, in a two-week span the IFC channel ran both parts of Mizoguchi’s masterpiece, but I was unable to record The 47 Ronin Part 2. However, I was lucky enough to track down both parts to The 47 Ronin thanks to a third party seller on Ebay; back in 2008, this was the best way to go.

Since then the film(s) were featured on Criterion’s defunct Hulu channel, and now beautifully restored on Filmstruck, which beats the hell out of my Korean import DVD with a beautiful crisp image and legible subtitles.

So why don’t we finally give The 47 Ronin 1 & 2 the very long overdue Criterion treatment? Alongside the many films that were taped off of IFC’s Samurai Saturday that have now earned spine numbers – Three Outlaw Samurai, Sword of Doom, Samurai Spy, Kill!, Sword of the Beast and every Zatoichi volume – it seems like Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin duology would be the first to earn a Criterion release and yet we’re still waiting.

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