June 29, 2011

47 RONIN - an epic story, revered in Japan

The Japanese samurai legend being remade with Keanu Reeves

This story is highly revered in Japan and has repeatedly been adapted for TV and film (reportedly 80 times). Its wintry climax has made it a regular part of Christmastime in Japan. Only a handful of the movie versions have been released in the west, but I wasn't aware of the story until I saw an exhibition of 19th century woodblock prints at the Royal Academy last year. Really.

The cinematic look of Utagawa Kuniyoshi's work, and the repetition of his depictions of the story and the characters impressed me that this was a big deal in Japanese culture. It actually took place, but I've no idea how much its been skewed from historical fact into legendary heroism. The actual graves of the 47 ronin are still revered and honoured today.

After the Kuniyoshi exhibit, I looked up the film adaptions. After I'd picked up two of the available movies, the story was announced for a Hollywood remake to be called 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada (Ring, The Twilight Samurai, Speed Racer) and Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer, Gohatto). Expected in cinemas in 2012, it'll be in 3D... (news report here from Metropolis Tokyo). So, as usual, I'll try not to spoil too much about it.

Set around 1702, in and about various castles, it starts with an indiscretion that leads to an outrage. An elaborate revenge can only be mounted with extreme patience and utmost secrecy, sworn by dozens of loyal samurai. Well, disowned samurai are called ronin...

(1958, Japan, Chushingura)

Respectful adaption from Daiei Studios that emphasises the impact of the ronin's revenge

Lord Kira's continual taunting of Lord Asano in his own castle pushes him to breaking point just as an imperial delegation arrives. His punishment sets his loyal men adrift without a leader, but they refuse to give up their castle. Their stubbornness causes rifts with their families and loved ones, while society waits for them to show some self-respect and avenge...

At the core of the story are the very strict codes of the imperial courts, the shogunate and their samurai, at a time when etiquette and dress code were extremely precise. The hierarchy of rank and the value of family name were rigidly defined. Within these almost invisible constraints, the ronin try to prove themselves with unending loyalty and extremes of emotional endurance, led by the stalwart Oishi (Kazuo Hasegawa).

This is primarily a drama, rather than an action film, over its three hour running time. The fight scenes are well orchestrated, but it's distracting not to see any blood after so many slashes from samurai swords. Much like old westerns never show any bloody wounds on even the whitest shirts, presumably the norm for this era of cinema. Seppuku (ritual suicide) is similarly tastefully dealt with, off screen.

As a drama it's impressive and the story kept me gripped till the end, bearing in mind that this was the first version I'd seen, with no idea how it was going to play out.

This is a faithful and straightforward account of the story. This DVD edition from AnimEigo has been praised for its accurate subtitle translations which optionally include extra historical explanations during the film, and in the DVD extras.

A fuller review of The Loyal 47 Ronin, with spoilers, from the Shogun's Mansion.

(1978, Japan, Ako-Jo danzetsu, The Fall of Ako Castle)

Bloodier, action-packed, sloppier version from Kinji Fukasaku

Another epic offering, this time from samurai specialists Toei Studios, boasting Sonny Chiba in the cast, but it must be stressed that he's not the star. The story has a lot of characters! Sonny gets some action of course, but Tetsuro Tamba and Toshiro Mifune are also in there. Again, Oishi has the central role, played here by Kinnosuke Nakamura. Kinji Fukasaku directs, halfway between giving us The Green Slime and Battle Royale...

While The Loyal 47 Ronin (1958) was successfully dramatic, Fukasaku delivers more action and certainly much more blood. This isn't excessive considering how many swords are being waved around, and he shows admirable restraint in the film's most powerful scene, a seppuku...

Other aspects of this very 1970s update are less successful - the opening title music is just plain wrong. It sounds more suitable for a sleazy detective thriller. Thankfully the music during the rest of the film is less jarring, though it rarely enhances the visuals.

The drama is amped up to over-acting and shouting, which often reaches laughable levels. It made me appreciate the acting in the 1958 film more. The story wastes no time and gets straight into the crucial incident which started it all off, with notably more blood than the 1958 version. It never reaches the spurting extremes of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch or the Baby Cart movies. There's an awkward jump cut in the film that I guess was a censor cut, removing a scene of seppuku (during the hair-cutting shot).

With a faster pace, and even voiceovers to keep the exposition rolling along, this still doesn't manage to be much shorter than the 1958 film at 160 minutes long. While the narrative is faster-moving, more and more complex action scenes have been included.

But this is where it falls down for me - the story of the 47 ronin hinges on a long and complex fight. The contemporary use of handheld camerawork made the action harder to follow, because it wasn't particularly good handheld work. I'd even say it's so 'loose' that it misses some of the action. This may be forgivable for viewers who know the story well, but it's a challenge for newcomers to understand what's happening. Handheld camera also intrudes into some slower dramatic scenes, further marred by wobbly zooms.

Swords of Vengeance is an epic showcase for the genre and the era, but the story deserves reverence rather than excess. It's worth seeing for the scenes that really work well, but it's not the best representation of the story.

The DVD from Adness has good subtitles, but the anamorphic 2.35 widescreen picture looks slightly too squeezed throughout.

A much fuller review of Swords of Vengeance here at Wild Realm, full of spoilers, as well as details of many other movie adaptions of the legend of the loyal 47 ronin.

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