Japan, 1702: feudal Lord Asano draws his sword against Lord Kira. As punishment the Shogunate order Asano to commit suicide. To cover-up the reason behind Asano's attack the Shogunate seize his lands, robbing his faithful samurai of their livelihood, homes and honour. Which does not sit well with chief retainer Oishi (Ken Takakura). Months later Oishi assembles his forty-six comrades outlining an audacious plan to raid Ako Castle and avenge their unjustly executed lord.
Chushingura or the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin (a ronin is a master-less samurai) is nothing less than the national legend of Japan. As a story that exemplifies the samurai code of bushido it has been told time and again in a variety of incarnations on stage and of course in movies, most recently the flop Keanu Reeves vehicle 47 Ronin (2014). Such is its popularity in Japan, audiences in 1994 happily flocked to two different film versions. Competing with Kinji Fukasaku's more fantastical Crest of Betrayal, veteran auteur Kon Ichikawa delivered this starry adaptation which was also in its own modest way a fairly radical treatment of a familiar tale. While Fukasaku embellished his version with supernatural elements and characters blasting each other with energy beams (predating the effects-heavy Hollywood version by several years), Ichikawa went the opposite route paring the story to its bare essentials with an emphasis on strategy, psychology and sociopolitical detail over action, at least until the bloody finale.
Ichikawa's subdued, cerebral approach earned the film considerable acclaim in Japan where it won numerous awards yet failed to bolster enduring appeal among international cult film fans who evidently prefer their samurai flicks action-packed and bloody as hell. In truth there is a bit of a gulf between purists that favour the stately, classical 'Jidai geki' (historical drama) film practiced by old-school auteurs like Ichikawa, Akira Kurosawa or Hiroshi Inagaki and the frenzied comic book exploitation style exemplified by Seventies chanbara (swordplay) films like Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972). What some admired as a contemplative, character driven chamber piece placing an emphasis on inner conflict over showy swordplay, bored others to death with talky, meandering drama and confusing, culturally-specific symbolism.
Certainly the film plods along in rather dry fashion. Voice-over narration sketches in historical details in a manner unfortunately reminiscent of a docu-drama for NHK. Fortunately the film benefits from the commanding presence of Japanese movie icon Ken Takakura who allows cracks in his stoic samurai facade to let his humanity seep through. Surprisingly the May-December romantic sub-plot pairing the then-sixty-three year old Takakura with sexy Rie Miyazawa, the It-Girl of Japanese pop culture in the Nineties, injects a spark of vitality and charm. In the midst of all the stoic samurai emoting, theirs is a rather sweet relationship that implies there is life beyond the bushido code of valour even though some might wander what Oishi is doing impregnating a teenager when he has a wife back home. Different rules for the feudal era, one imagines. There is quite a moving sub-plot where Oishi realizes his only son must accompany him on what is sure to be a suicide mission along with an interesting touch of ambiguity as we never learn why Lord Asano tried to kill Kira. In true samurai fashion Oishi ultimately concludes it simply does not matter, his lord's death is all he cares about. Ichikawa's visual flair and keen understanding of traditional Japanese symbolism render this an arresting cinematic experience albeit one that likely resonates better with a Japanese audience who know this story back to front. He plays around with the chronology of events delving into the political, financial and social ramifications of events from Asano's attack and suicide to the ronin's climactic retaliation. However this version omits the aftermath of the raid on Ako castle which is arguably as significant to this legend. While not as spectacularly visceral as other versions the climax is still exciting and rendered with interesting details such as servants providing the ronin with food and drink in the midst of the raid. Yukio Isohata's cinematography combines well with Kensaku Tanikawa's powerful score to create a foreboding atmosphere throughout.