"The 47 Ronin" - Kenji Mizoguchi (1941-42)

Kenji Mizoguchi was at the height of his powers by the late 1930s, as evidenced by Osaka Elegy (1936), Sisters of the Gion (1936), and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939), but at the outset of the 1940s the Japanese government’s increasing military involvements began to impose restrictions on his artistic license. Japan was already deeply involved in the brutal China-Japan War (Second Sino-Japanese War), which would kill one million Japanese soldiers and lead to more than 20 million Chinese deaths. In addition, the government was preparing for possible conflict with Russia and the United States. To provide moral support for these activities and glorify Japanese military values, the government commissioned Mizoguchi to make a film about the famous story of the “Loyal 47 Ronin”, which involved subject matter far removed from Mizoguchi’s usual social dramas. So Mizoguchi’s treatment must be examine in this historical and cultural context.

The 47 Ronin (Genroku Ako) Incident was a real historical occurrence that took place in 1701-02 during the Tokugawa shogunate (aka the Edo Period). It is sometimes referred to as Japan’s “national legend” and has a standing in Japanese culture perhaps somewhat like thath of Joan of Arc in France, or the Boston Tea Party in the United States. It might be even more appropriate, though, to compare it to the Alamo Incident in the U.S. Mexican war, because the Genroku Ako incident was not a seminal event that changed the course of history, but was more of an iconic event that went on to rally sympathies concerning heroic conduct. In the case of the Genroku Ako case, there is also the important issue of loyalty to bushido, the samurai code of honour.

The Japanese had a long history of samurai, who were the upper ranks of the warrior class. By the 12th century, the samurai followed an already highly structured, though unwritten, code, known as bushido. During the Edo period, which covered the 17th -19th centuries, there was no warfare, and the samurai became more domesticated, occupying significant positions in the bureaucracy and court. Traditional values nevertheless expected them to live by their strict code. But there was also an increasingly structured legal system set down by the shogunate, so samurai were expected to follow and live up to the demands of two codes of conduct; the government legal system and bushido.

Incidentally, samurai were by no means a tiny segment of society. They represented up to 10 percent of the adult male population during this time. To be “somebody” was to be a samurai – there was an enormous difference in honour and respect between a samurai warrior and an ordindary commoner. The highest samurai were daimyos, i.e. lords, who had territorial estates and employed a regiment of samurai as their most valued employees. According to the bushido code, these serving samurai were to have undying loyalty to their lords and masters. If a samurai were to be discharged or his master were to die, then he would become a ronin, which was a masterless samurai. To be a ronin was to be in a highly compromised position concerning one’s honour, because he would be unable to fulfil the demands that bushido had laid down. As a consequence, if a samurai became a ronin, he was unlikely to be hired and was threatened with penury.

The specific historical details of the real 47 Ronin Incident are as follows. In 1701 two younger daimyos, Lord Asano and Lord Kamei, were ordered to arrange a reception for some envoys of Emperor in Edo (Tokyo). They were to be given instruction by Lord Kira, the official Master of Ceremonies and a member of an important Edo family. For some reason, perhaps because the two younger daimyos had not given Lord Kira a suitable bribe, Kira began abusing them in public, causing them to lose face. Lord Kamei somehow managed to mollify Lord Kira (perhaps with a suitable bribe), so Kira turned his abuse exclusively on Lord Asano. Eventually Lord Asano lost control and physically attacked Lord Kira with a dagger inside the shogun’s residence. But Kira was only wounded by the first thrust, and the two were quickly separated by palace guards. Asano was taken into custody and a judgement from the shogunate was rendered against him for his offence on palace grounds: he was to commit suicide (hara kiri, or seppuku) as punishment, his daimyo estate was to be disestablished, his family ruined, and his samurai retainers were to be made ronin.

Of Asano’s three hundred or so samurai, forty-seven of them banded together under their leader, chamberlain Oishi, and swore to avenge Asano’s humiliation and death. They intended to kill Lord Kira, even if it cost them their own lives. By doing so, they would live up to the bushido code. But, of course, Kira was suspicious and surrounded himself with armed guards. So Oishi and his men plotted to lie low for some time until they had the right opportunity. In order to deflect suspicion, Oishi began acting like a drunkard and others of his men went underground. Finally, after almost two years, the loyal ronin reassembled in Edo and staged an attack on Kira’s residence. In the onslaught, Kira and sixteen of his men were killed, with another twenty-two men wounded. The men then decapitated Kira and took his head to Lord Asano’s grave, where they presented it as an offering to satisfy their deceased lord’s requirements for revenge. Then Oishi and his men turned themselves into the authorities. Clearly Oishi and his men had broken the law, but they had, according to the community, satisfied the demands of bushido. The shogunate officials took almost two months to come to their verdict, which was that Oishi and his men must also die by committing seppuku.

The tombs of Oishi’s ronin soon became a sight of great veneration, and not long afterwards there were stories, poems, and plays composed honouring these “heroes”. Slightly fictionalised versions of the story were entitled “Chushingura”, and over the years there have been more than twenty Japanese films and many televison features depicting the story. So when anyone else filmed the story, he was expected not to deviate much from the real historical events.

The 47 Ronin story has captured the Japanese imagination like nothing else, and it is worthwhile reflecting on the reasons for this. The principal story themes are honour (in particular, maintaining face), personal sacrifice, and revenge.
  • Face. For many people in the West, honour is not just having the respect of one's peers, but of being honourable – being truly worthy of honour. One can be honourable from this perspective, even if nobody notices. But for many other people around the globe, honour is simply face – purely how one is seen in the community of popular opinion. To lose face in the eyes of one’s compatriots for such people is insufferable, no matter how much one may know inside that he is right. The strength of such feelings concerning face can be measured by the number of Middle Eastern men willing to kill their own sisters or daughters for perceived behaviour that is morally compromising. These people seem to think that if they kill their female relatives, they will remove the stain of dishonour from their families. We must acknowledge, even if we don’t condone, the widespread passions in this regard. But we should also remember that Asians have also contributed, via Yoga, Buddhism, and Sufism, entirely opposite and egoless sentiments – those associated with humility and compassion. From this more enlightened perspective what is important is the inner light, not the outer appearance.
  • Revenge. Revenge has always been a popular at the box office, and some films, such as Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), and the Iranian film, Tangsir (1974), have been little more than elaborate vehicles for the visceral thrill of vengeance. Revenge is not concerned with compensating or restoring the victim of the original harm, but with the infliction of an additional injury on the perpetrator that is supposed to put things in some sort of balance. In revenge films some identified evildoer(s) commit(s) some unjustified act of violence on an innocent victim, and then the entire narrative is devoted to enacting revenge – which inevitably takes place at the climax. But let’s fact it, the desire for revenge, like the concern for face, is a low and unworthy emotion. As with the case of revenge, many spiritual practices and moral counsels have urged people to turn away from these base feelings and be more compassionate: “love thine enemy”.
Of the two sentiments, concerns for face often dominate. In fact revisionist critics have suggested that the original 47 ronin were perhaps too concerned about revenge and not enough focussed on face. What if Kira had died during the almost two years between Asano’s death and their murderous attack? Then their chances of avenging their master would have been lost. This, according to Yamamoto Tsunetomo, would have been disastrous. The proper thing, according to Yamamoto, would have been to attack Kira immediately, even if their attack had ended in failure. At least it would have satisfied the stringent demands of bushido. By waiting the 47 ronin improved their chances of success, but risked the horrors of dishonour by losing face.

Besides their primitive, animalistic nature, both face and revenge share another significant property: an entire community can share in the feelings of both the restoration of face and the enactment of revenge. So at the community level these two visceral sentiments can also be combined with personal sacrifice (always popular with governments) to motivate collective actions of violence. This is undoubtedly what the Japanese government wanted to encourage in 1941. Certainly war was not a novelty to the Japanese people by 1941. Japan had already been occupying Manchuria since 1931, and in 1937 its army had carried out the Rape of Nanjing, slaughtering upwards of 300,000 unarmed civilians in little over a month. By 1941 there was no end in sight to these conflicts, and military prospects were turning menacing. The story of the 47 Ronin must have looked like an excellent vehicle for the purpose of supporting commitment to the military code.

However, the film that Mizoguchi wound up making may not have been exactly what the Japanese government was looking for. Although many rousing versions of the “47 Ronin” and “Chushingura” have been made, including landmark versions by Kunio Watanabe in 1958 and by Hiroshi Inagaki in 1962, Mizoguchi’s realisation of the story was very slow, deliberate, and almost mournful in tone. In fact his realisation of the story, which was based on a Kabuki play by Seika Mayama, was so lengthy, it was actually released as two separate two-hour films, The 47 Ronin, Part I (Genroku Chûshingura 1, 1941) and The 47 Ronin, Part II (Genroku Chûshingura 2, 1942). And both films were devastating failures at the box office. Nevertheless, the government must have been reasonably satisfied, because they awarded Mizoguchi a special prize for his achievement. Consider some of the things that Mizoguchi left ouf of his four-hour epic:
  1. There is no coverage of Lord Kira’s antagonism of Lord Asano. The film more or less begins with Asano’s assault, and there is no justification for it given in the film. It is merely dismissed as a personal grudge on the part of Asano. This removes any consideration that Kira had committed an injustice and deserved to be punished.
  2. Asano’s act of hara kiri is not explicitly shown.
  3. There is no description of how Oishi planned to carry out vengeance. Oishi decided to murder Kira, but there is almost no discussion of tactics or strategy. We know from the original story that the ronin were waiting for the chance to make their move and had to carry out surveillance in order to find out how to penetrate his compound. None of this is discussed in the film.
  4. The actual attack on Kira’s residence, which might have been a thrilling action sequence, is not shown. It is merely described in its aftermath.
  5. Neither the deliberations on the part of the shogunate over how to respond to the ronins’ attack nor the actual reading of the judgement against the ronin are presented. Both of these activities take place off screen.
  6. The final acts of seppuku on the part of the 47 ronin at the end of the film are not explicitly shown.
With all these significant elements of the story taking place off screen, one might wonder where Mizoguchi’s attention was primarily directed. In fact, the story focusses almost entirely on the deliberate and often ceremonial actions of chamberlain Oishi, the leader of the 47 ronin. Everyone, in the film, as well as the audience, is waiting to see what action he will take. And it is this watching and waiting that constitutes much of the film. In this respect, the story is somewhat comparable to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is living in a world that has been set ajar by heinous, unnatural acts, and the focus is on whether Hamlet will take action to set things aright and back to their normal order. In Mizoguchi’s film, there is a similar focus, but there is a difference in the degree to which the audience can identify with the thoughts of the main character. In Hamlet, there is an almost subjective focus on Hamlet, himself, and the movement that his mind undergoes in the direction ultimately of decisive action. In The 47 Ronin, however, we do not peer inside Oishi’s mind – everything is seen from a distant and external viewpoint. Oishi, in fact, has early on made up on his mind about what to do; he’s not anguishing much over his future course of action. But noone knows just what his plans are. The film narrative revolves around our watching various seemingly mundane activities in order to see what Oishi has planned to do all along. This external watching is characteristic of Mizoguchi’s perspective: the viewpoint is never subjective in his films. There are almost no over-the-shoulder shots, suggestive of a narrative empathy with a single agent. Instead, we see things from a more distant and neutral environmental context. Moreover, Mizoguchi often shows a carefully composed shot of some of the participants of a group conversation, but does not shift the camera angle over to see the one who is speaking. Frequently this speaker is out of frame, while the camera remains focussed on someone who is not speaking and not even the principal addressee. In fact the numerous crane shots looking down from great heights or shots across courtyards suggest that there is never a consistent "silent witness", other than the building environment, itself.

Because the justification and motivation for revenge have been removed from Mizoguchi’s plot, The 47 Ronin is not really a revenge film – it is primarily an elaborate Japanese Tea Ceremony in celebration of saving face that has been disguised as a commitment to a higher principle: bushido. There are three key additional plot elements in Mizoguchi’s story that emphasise this point:

1. Oishi's Delay. Chamberlain Oishi is presented as delaying any action of vengeance on the part of the 47 ronin, not because they were all under suspicion, but because any immediate action might lessen the face-saving benefits that they sought. After Asano’s death, Oishi had petitioned the shogunate to have his house restored. He knew full well that the shogunate, aligned as it was against Asano, would deny this request, but he made the petition anyway in order to deflect suspicion from himself and the other ronin. However, because of the general public sympathy for Asano and the ronin, there was mounting pressure on the shogunate to respond favourably to the petition and restore Asano’s house. This was a concern for Oishi, and he felt that if they were now to attack during this period, it might be conjectured on the part of the public that the ronin were seeking the material benefits associated with the restoration of Asano’s house. This would lessen the image of the pure, bushido-soaked, action of sacrifice that they sought to present. “People won’t call it a clean revenge”, he explains to his son near the end of Part I. So Oishi’s delay in Mizoguchi’s film is associated with his waiting to ensure that the petition to restore Asano’s house was not at issue -- in other words, not with tactics but with enhancing face.

2. Sukeyomon's "unclean" revenge. In an early part of Part II, some time has passed and an important daimyo in Edo is shown where a Noh theatrical performance is about to be presented at his residence, with Lord Kira an expected member of the audience. He remarks that he is contemplating recommending to the shogunate that the Asano house be restored, but he is sure that Oishi and the Asano retainers still seek revenge. He consults his advisor, who has taught him the wisdom of the Chinese sages on what to do. After reflection, he says (and his former teacher agrees) that “we must act like samurai before we act in line with the Chinese sages”. This is an explicit celebration of Japanese samurai distinctiveness from the older Chinese culture. He says that if he helps restore the Asano house, Oishi will lose his chance for a clean revenge, so he decides not to make the recommendation.

One of the 47 ronin, Sukeyemon, is found by the daimyo's men to be about to attend the Noh play and is brought before the daimyo for questioning. The daimyo, speculating that Sukeyemon intends to attack Kira, intentionally minsforms Sukeyemon and tells him that Lord Kira will appear as one of the actors in the play, rather than be in the audience. Later, just off stage and before the play begins, Sukeyemon attacks a man in actor’s garb whom he thinks is Kira. But it turns out to be the daimyo, himself, who has set Sukeyemon up. The daimyo then sternly admonishes Sukeyemon, telling him that if anyone were to kill Kira now, it would spoil Oishi’s vengeance plot. Oishi and company, he explains, need to pull off something really dazzling against Kira. “Killing that miserable old man is of secondary importance”, he says. The important thing is to take revenge in a spectacular fashion. Again the point of enhancing one’s face and public reputation takes precedence over everything else, including justice.

3. Omino's face-saving suicide. After Lord Kira is murdered in Part II, the 47 ronin, all awaiting their sentencing, are held in gentlemanly custody by one of the daimyos in Edo, Lord Kosokowa. Oishi is visited at this time by a young woman dressed up as a man, who has tried to sneak in and who wishes to see one of the ronin, Isogai, whom she claims is her fiancé. It seems that Isogai had conspired to become betrothed to the girl, Omino, as part of the plot against Kira (no explanation of these operations are given in the film, but Japanese audiences would be familiar with the general outline that there was a tactical plan set up to conduct surveillance prior to the attack on Lord Kira’s residence). Omino, still in love with Isogai, wants to meet with him now in order to find out if he ever really loved her, or if he had just fooled her and used her as part of the murder plot. Oishi tells her to go away and not trouble Isogai now. If she were to meet him now, he says, it might cause Isogai to lose his nerve and fail to live up to the samurai code. He tells her to disappear and assume that Isogai had only used her. But Omino persists. “Is samurai honour so important?”, she asks. Eventually Oishi relents and lets her visit briefly with Isogai. After some initial reluctance, Isogai breaks down and confirms his love, assuring her that he is truly “her father’s son-in-law”. At this point the final verdict arrives from the shogunate castle. The 47 ronin must all commit suicide.

The ronin are now offered a ceremonial tea, prior to marching off to their deaths. As the men file through a corridor, Oishi looks into a side room, where he sees that Omino has committed hara kiri (but is still alive). Isogai is brought before her. With gasping breath, she reveals that suicide had always been her ultimate intention when she came to see Isogai. Evidently her father had lost his vassalage and position from Lord Kosokawa because of the shame of her having been stood up at the alter. So she had resolved to end her life this way to help restore her father’s honour. But at this point she is informed that Lord Ksoskowa, having heard about Isogai’s true love for her, has relented and ordered that Omino’s father be restored to his position and estate. She is offered medical assistance, but she refuses it – she wants the lie of their love to remain a lie, in order to protect the pure reputation of the ronin/samurai. She prefers that her father’s house be abolished in shame in order to protect the “clean revenge” of the 47 ronin.

All of these elements emphasise the main point: that committing mass suicide for the sake of face and bushido is preferable to life, itself. Just before his own seppuku, Oishi remarks with contentment that “it seems that they have all died without being disgraceful.” But this sentiment, no mater how artfully presented by the filmmaker, is something we must reject. The Japanese government may have been pleased with this propaganda film, because it raised the notion of saving face to a false spiritual summit. But that is not what we should cherish. Love, compassion, the reaching out to the other – these are the things that must be endorsed and expressed. Compare this film to Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, 1928) to see the contrasting, passionate presentation of another person who goes to her death, not for saving face, but for her commitment to love.


John said...

I must say, I agree with many of your objections to the film, but 2 stars seems a little ungenerous. As Kokomoarnold says, no one can accuse Mizoguchi of playing to an audience. I wonder if the intentional absence of everything that might have made this more interesting might have been Mizoguchi's defiance against the government that made him make a propoganda film.

Vidor said...

It is not correct to say that Kira's insult of Asano is not shown. It is, in fact, shown, in the first lines of dialogue.

Rex Roca said...

I just read your review and Richard Brody's on the New Yorker. Brody argues that the Ronin are not trying to save face, but they are rebelling against an unfair ruling class. The conflict is that they must rebel in a way that maintains the spirit of the Samurai.

There is definitely an aspect of making sure their Lord does not seem like a fool, but there are a lot of moments in the film where the samurai are upset with how unfair the ruling was.

It's also not explicitly shown but it's assumed that Tokugawa reports to the shogun in a way that will help the ronin get their justified revenge.