dir: Hiroshi Inagaki
[img_assist|nid=1006|title=Some alphabet you got there, you suicide-prone freaks|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=662]
Now here’s a blast from the past. For reasons I’m not going to bother to explain, I’ve taken it upon myself to review an ancient Japanese samurai film for my amusement and to a chorus of yawns from the rest of the world. I do love Japanese films, that’s true, but I’m not sure if that’s adequate justification for writing about a film that is over forty years old.
Surely it matters not. Clearly the makers of this flick, The 47 Ronin, didn’t think that the Seven Samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece were enough. Clearly they thought there needed to be plenty more samurai to make a really good flick. After all, just like with sex, cooking or explosives, if something doesn’t work, just add more ingredients.
Actually, that’s got nothing to do with it. The 47 Samurai is one of the fundamental Japanese cultural tales regarding its history and feudal system of vassalage, and the complex and rigid societal / class system known as bushido, which translates to ‘way of the samurai’. Fascinated as I am with Japanese history and culture, this well-made but a bit tiresome epic film is a perfect example of everything that was most insane about this crazy country. And also, most importantly, it says something about why everyone seems to be dead at the end of so many Japanese films.
Lord Asano (Yuzo Kayama) is a young and prideful man. His stance against bribery and corruption brings him into conflict with the greedy and lustful Lord Kira (Chusha Ichikawa), who provokes Asano until he cants stands no more, in the words of Popeye. Asano lashes out at Kira, drawing a sword in a place where it is forbidden (the Shogun’s building), and lightly wounds him. I felt like screaming “Finish Him!” at the screen.
Due to Kira’s superior rank, and Asano’s drawing of a weapon, the samurai code clearly dictates what must happen next. Asano is not arrested and executed; he is invited to commit seppukuh, where he would be expected to stab himself in the guts and have a second, or kaishaku, usually a friend, cut off his head.
Asano does as is required of him. The samurai live by and die by the code. Often without seeming hesitation. Sometimes they seem absurdly eager to off themselves. It really comes across as surreal to non-Japanese outsiders. It has to.
But Asano’s suicide doesn’t fix things. The law dictates that his lands be seized, and that his loyal samurai retainers become masterless, becoming ronin.
These loyal retainers are put in an untenable position: they are tainted by the shame of their Lord’s actions, they cannot seek legal recourse against Lord Kira, and they have no chance of becoming retainers for any other lord because of the permanent shame they carry on behalf of their formerly alive Lord.
Under this bizarre feudal system, they really only have two courses of action open to them: give up being samurai, as in become peasants, or kill themselves immediately just for the hell of it.
The first hour of the film covers the fate of Lord Asano, the next two hours look at the preparations of the loyal samurai as they plan a third course of action, and the last half hour covers their response to the continued living and breathing of Lord Kira. That’s a lot of hours for a film with this kind of ending.
For a film this old, it seems pointless to avoid spoilers. And, with minimal research, the fate of the 47 samurai is easily discovered, especially since this film version (of which there are dozens) follows the official history fairly closely. But that shouldn’t detract from the enjoyment this film must have provided to Japanese audiences back in the 60s, and potentially can give bemused audiences today thanks to the magic of DVD.
In this film, the audience is meant to delight in the affirmation of the very powerful idea that, to get justice, you should be willing to sacrifice anything. Including and especially your own life. In fact, if you’re not dead by the end of it, then you didn’t really do it right.
It’s not really justice we’re talking about here. It’s shame. A society based around the idea that offing yourself is preferable to having self-imposed notions of how something you had no control over means your life is permanently tainted in other people’s eyes, is a fundamentally crazy society. It’s no way to live. It also leads to the kind of insanity that the Japanese nation visited upon the world during World War II, but that’s another story.
The film even acknowledges this dilemma. Characters who are samurai talk of giving up their status and becoming peasants so that they don’t have to be bound by the stifling strictures of the laws governing their feudal and futile class and society. One character has a conversation with another and ends up saying something along the lines of, “Sorry, can’t stay for long, I have to go and commit suicide.” I don’t know if this stuff is revisionist, modernist or part of the original story, but it does at least give an inkling as to the absurdity of such a system and the cheapness with which it treats human life.
The samurai are lead by Chamberlain Oishi (Koshiro Matsumoto) who came up with this cunning plan of pretending for a year that the samurai are lazy good-for-nothing libertines or cowards with no intention of getting revenge on Kira. He sacrifices the most by not even telling most of his colleagues, nor his family, nor Lord Asano’s widow, what he is planning for most of that year. His intention is to lull Lord Kira into a false sense of security so that he won’t expect an attack or the Spanish Inquisition either, for that matter.
Kira is very paranoid, though, and has spies everywhere, so the 47’s preparations must be done in secret. As any reasonable person would expect, we don’t really get to know the majority of the samurai at all, and, as such, they’re pretty interchangeable.
We don’t know much about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, or most of the shmos who died at Little Big Horn either.
The more prominent characters like Oishi, Yasubei Horibe (Tatsuya Mihashi) and that colossus of Japanese cinema Toshiro Mifune as the drunken fighter Genba Tawaraboshi stand out. It’s probably deceptive to even mention Mifune, since he’s such a minor character, but it’s always a buzz seeing him appear in a scene.
This is not an action film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s more of what I call a court drama, which looks at the machinations of the samurai class and lords as they try to outdo each other in their high stakes games. There’s some fighting at the end, but it’s minimal. The real story is in the sure, steady leadership of Oishi, and in the impact the year of preparation has on the men and the people around them.
Lord Kira’s ultimate fate isn’t the driving force here, and clearly the survival of the 47 is immaterial, since they all know the fate that awaits is the same whether they succeed or fail in their quest. This story’s lasting importance comes from the mythic qualities it expresses that permeated Japanese society and remain a big part of the country’s art and psyche even today. As such the film remains, for me at least, a film more interesting than it was entertaining.
7 reasons a samurai can think of to commit suicide before breakfast out of 10.
“With all due respect, we invite you to commit hara-kiri.” – an offer there’s no point refusing, The 47 Ronin.