When the Kenji Mizoguchi production of The 47 Ronin was begun in 1941, Imperial Japan was at the height of its power in Asia. But by the time the two-part film was finished in 1942, the United States had declared war on Japan after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Tokyo had been bombed by Doolittle's daring raid, and the Battle of Midway had turned the tide of Japanese expansion in the Pacific against them. It might seem strange to us that, at a time of foreseeable national peril, such a major film production should've been undertaken, telling the story of a feudal lord in 1701 being forced to commit suicide (seppuku) and the suicidal revenge of his masterless samurai (ronin). But, as anyone who has read Ivan Morris's splendid book, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan knows, the Japanese often found great victories in catastrophic defeat. How else can one explain the kamikaze attacks later in the war, when young pilots crashed planes loaded with explosives into American ships? They were intended to inspire such awe in the hearts of Americans that it would provoke us to sue for peace terms. Instead, we called them "baka bombs" (idiot bombs). Americans, with no emperor but FDR, didn't see the point of killing themselves if defeat was already a foreseen.(1)
Mizoguchi's film, Genroku Chushingura, has an imposing stateliness and elegiac tone about it that becomes overpowering as the drama moves to its inevitable conclusion. Mizoguchi was making no attempt to make the past live again. To audiences of the film, that past was still very much alive in 1942 - although not, thank God, for much longer. Loving the Japanese film as I do, though, I found watching this film a perplexing experience.
For fans of the latest 47 Ronin, for whom a Japanese tale of honor and loyalty can be palatable only when the lead is played by a Caucasian actor (after all, wasn't Tom Cruise supposed to be the Last Samurai?), Mizoguchi's two-part version must seem thoroughly deracinating. Having seen several of Mizoguchi's films, I didn't watch his 47 Ronin expecting great action scenes. It isn't really about action. But I didn't need to know that the film is based on a play, since the climactic revenge on Kira takes place off-screen, as does the finale, in which all forty-seven of Lord Asano's loyal samurai commit seppuku, one at a time. Mizoguchi was wise to use tracking shots frequently. Otherwise, this seventy year old film would seem, even to the initiated, as unbelievably static as one of Carl Theodore Dreyer's late, late films.
The story is one of the best known and most beloved in Japan, as The Song of Roland once was among educated Westerners. It tells of Lord Asano, who is so thoroughly insulted in the opening scene, set within the Shogun'sprecincts, by Kira, the Shogun's Master of Ceremonies, that he feels impelled by outraged honor to attack him with his sword.(2) Lord Asano only manages to wound Kira before bystanders restrain him. Whether provoked or not, Lord Asano's attack is condemned by the Shogun and he is ordered to commit seppuku as punishment. Later, when Asano's house is abolished as well, all of his samurai begin to plot their revenge on Kira. But in feudal Japan, even revenge must obey the rules, so Asano's masterless samurai Have to wait more than a year to carry out their plan.
Mizoguchi's production (designed by Hiroshi Mizutani) is splendid and obviously costly. It reminds one of the expensive productions that were mounted in Nazi Germany in the middle of the war intended to boost the public's morale while bombs were falling on their heads. But this 47 Ronin is not escapist entertainment. It was a celebration and reinforcement of the same feudalism that got Japan into the war, that induced the Japanese people to follow their emperor all the way to the near-total destruction of their country, and that the postwar occupation authorities, headed by Douglas MacArthur, sought to eradicate. The Japanese learned their lessons. Within a few years of the war's end, filmmakers as diverse as Kurosawa, Kobayashi, and Okamoto were inspired to create scathing satires and bitter denunciations of the samurai spirit. Simply compare Mizoguchi's stately glorification of medieval Japan to Kobayashi's overpowering attack on it in his film Seppuku, containing a harrowing scene in which a young ronin whose poverty has forced him to sell his steel sword and replace it with a bamboo one, is forced to commit harakiri with it.
Mizoguchi continued to make films after the war, and contributed much to a certain mystique in the West for historical dramas illustrating what was considered a uniquely Japanese fatalism - The Life of Oharu, The Crucified Lovers, Sansho the Bailiff, and especially Ugetsu. Watching The 47 Ronin, with its wondrously detailed sets and costumes - period settings that represent Tokugawa-era culture in full flower, a world of custom and comportment, of rigid structure and refined aestheticism, capable of extreme delicacy and savagery simultaneously - with Japan living under what is now known as "existential threat," one feels that, if such a threat had been realized, if Japan hadn't surrendered after the atomic bombs, and if the Japanese had followed their emperor (as everyone feared) and fought to the last Japanese, perhaps this film could stand as a memorial to the history and traditions that inspired it and the people who thought so much of it that they went to such pains to make it live again.
(1) We now know that Hitler scrapped plans to launch manned V1 rockets against England, and that, late in the war, there were German "self-sacrifice" pilots who flew suicide missions.
(2) Kira's insult is to say of Lord Asano loudly enough for him to hear that "Reception Committee member in name only. I doubt he can carry out his various functions. There was no one so ignorant or so rude." I think the point to be taken is that the substance of the insult isn't important.