47 Ronin Parts 1 and 2
Didn't take long to enter the samurai portion of the Criterion Collection. Japanese cinema is very well represented in the Criterion Collection and here is a samurai story, maybe THE samurai story, from one of the masters of Japanese cinema Kenji Mizoguchi.
The 47 Ronin, for those who don't know, is the tale of the samurai warriors in the service of Lord Asano. In the early 18th Century, young Lord Asano impulsively tries to kill his rival Lord Kira in the Shogun's palace. Because of this breach of protocol Asano is forced to commit suicide. His samurai become masterless ronin and swear revenge on Lord Kira. They launch a sneak attack and take his head. They then turn themselves into the authorities and one by one commit ritual suicide and join their dead master. It's one of the most famous samurai stories in Japan and perfectly captures the samurai spirit.
This film was produced during World War II and the film does contain some pro Japanese propaganda. The opening title urges the audience to "protect the homes of the soldiers who fight for a greater Asia." Lord Kira in the film is despised because he is weak and wouldn't even draw his own sword in his defense. The emperor is revered like a god. But honestly it's fairly tame propaganda compared to what was being produced elsewhere.
Now fans of samurai movies may be disappointed in that there is very little swordplay in this film. There's only one real fight scene, a rather odd sequence where a nobleman tries to keep one of the ronin from rushing off recklessly to kill his target. That's not where this film's focus lies. It's with these men, in particular Oishi, Lord Asano's chief counselor who organizes the revenge. There is still plenty of drama to be had. Oishi must balance his own thirst for revenge with the political realities. He has to wait and keep his compatriots in line until the time is truly right and it's a strain that wears on him and the others.
This is the first time I saw a film by Mizoguchi and this is a fine example of his style. Mizoguchi is the master of the long take. His camera moves through these elaborate sets, some of them must have been the size of a football field. As the camera moves the composition changes reflecting the dramatic shifts in the scene. One shot that blew me away occurs in the first part. Oishi is first scene inside Asano's castle. He starts out lost in the rest of the landscape. But as he camera moves he gets bigger and bigger until he takes up most of the frame. We haven't even been given the character's name at this point but it's obvious that he will loom large in the story.
There are many other examples. Mizoguchi's framing is gorgeous. The shots are composed. Even those having to do with death. The samurai are lead to a pavilion decorated all in white where they will commit ritual suicide.
Mizoguchi is famous for his sympathy for his female characters. This is largely a male driven story. But there are some delicate scenes with Lady Asano where you feel for this woman who has lost her husband and is now adrift in society. And the first film ends with Oishi bidding goodbye to his beloved wife. Her family has pressured her into leaving him. But the most tragic female character is a young woman who was betrothed to one of the samurai. Her story is very sad and it has a tragic ending.
This is a film to see if you want to direct. Mizoguchi's use of movement is astonishing. We're losing a lot of cinematic movement in today's films. Everything today is edited at a frenetic pace. The kind of movement Mizoguchi specializes in requires long takes which can be hard on cast and crew, but the results are worth it. As a screenwriter it's fascinating to see this very traditional tale told in a very traditional way. The story itself has been retold in a recent movie. It would great to compare and contrast that movie with this very traditional version.