I’m not sure what the Japanese Ministry of Information thought they would get when they commissioned Kenji Mizoguchi to make The 47 Ronin. They wanted a propaganda film that would inspire the Japanese population in a time of war and remind them of the value of loyalty and honor, but, even as early as 1941, Mizoguchi wasn’t that type of filmmaker to make the simple, brainless movie that the Ministry no doubt expected. His previous work included such introspective, thoughtful masterpieces such as The Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, and The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, hardly appropriate templates for wartime propaganda.
But the Ministry wanted a master to tell the would-be arousing and inspiring legendary tale of the 47 ronin, a group of eighteenth century masterless samurai who crave revenge for the man who caused the disgrace and death of their master, along with the abolition of his house and their own demotions to masterless samurai, or ronin. It is safe to say the intended message was to be wrapped in a rousing adventure, but Mizoguchi had other ideas. He transformed the film into a thoughtful consideration of duty and honor in a world that values these concepts less and less.
The opening of the film is nothing short of brilliant. We see the initial confrontation between Lord Asano and Lord Kira, which will fuel the actions of other characters for the rest of the film. Kira insults young Asano and in a blind rage Asano draws his sword, attaking and wounding Kira. Asano is taken into custody and it is determined that he should commit hara-kiri, his property confiscated, and his house abolished. His samurai are outraged at both the harshness of the sentence and the injustice of Kira avoiding any censure for his own disrespect. Forty seven loyal samurai vow to get revenge.
This sounds like the setup of a typical samurai flick, but a wrench in thrown in their plans when their leader Oishi appears to waver. He officially applies for a repeal that would restore the house (and their positions). When he sees that his application garners public support he knows he can’t fulfill their plan for revenge, at least until a decision is made. Oishi, to ensure the fair consideration of the application and to keep Kira off guard, lives a public life of luxury. The other samurai are outraged at his behavior and demand action. Even Asano’s widow chides him for his apparent indifference to their dishonor.
This movie was the first part of a two part series so nothing will be resolved until the second picture which wasn’t released until 1942. The first part, however, was a flop in Japan, being released only a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Luckily the studio felt it was an important film and green lit the second film. Viewers really need to see both parts for the complete experience.
Though the subject matter is not Mizoguchi’s traditional strength he brings a visual elegance we don’t often expect (or demand) from movies of this ilk. Mizoguchi’s scenes are carefully composed but fluidly shot. He avoids editing in favor of long and medium shots, punctuated by sweeping camera movements. Mizoguchi’s visual strategy allows us to consider the characters’ relations with each other and their environment. It also reinforces the dominant theme of interconnectedness.
Mizoguchi is aware that the world had changed around those 47 men who remained loyal to their clan. Traditional concepts of honor and duty had been supplanted by codes of selfishness and greed, by a bureaucratic system that favored plunder and graft. What is fascinating is we usually think an action’s effects diminish over time; the usual metaphor is the ripping rings when a stone is dropped in a pond and how they flatten out the farther away we get. Mizoguchi argues that when we commit ourselves to the ethics of honor those ripples can get more intense. The more time passes without their situation being resolved, the more intense their need for revenge. There is no dissipation of hatred, no softening of feeling, no weakening of resolve. Instead of a mindless revenge fantasy, we are treated to a thoughtful, character driven consideration of men who value honor above all else.