In the feudal society of 1701 Japan, the samurai code of honor is slowly becoming irrelevant as provincial laws, nepotism, and bureaucracy replace ritual and tradition. The elder ceremonial lord, Kira (Mantoyo Mimasu), fails to instruct Lord Asano (Yoshizaburo Arashi) on proper court etiquette (primarily due to Lord Asano’s oversight in offering a bribe to the corrupt Kira), and openly insults the young lord. In a fit of anger, Lord Asano slightly wounds Kira, and is sent before the court for judgment. The court has relational ties to Kira, and exacts a swift, severe punishment for the unrepentant Lord Asano to commit hara-kiri (ritual suicide). Lord Asano’s house is abolished, his property is confiscated, and his samurais are reduced to the ignominious state of ronin (masterless samurai). Lord Asano’s most trusted samurai, Chamberlain Oishi (Chojuro Kawarasaki) petitions for the restoration of the house under Lord Asano’s brother, a futile request designed to conceal the samurais’ blood pact to avenge Lord Asano’s disgrace. But in an unexpected turn of events, the petition draws public support, and the samurais are forced to await its final outcome before plotting their course of action. Meanwhile, Oishi’s reputation becomes tarnished as he is compelled to act out a charade of disinterest and self-service in order to cast off suspicion for his ulterior motive – to lead the samurais into a final, noble act of vengeance.
Based on a historical event, Kenji Mizoguchi’s adaptation of The 47 Ronin is a visually resplendent, understated and elegant film on loyalty, fraternity, and honor. Despite the overt manipulation of the Japanese government to showcase the film as a propaganda tool during World War II, The 47 Ronin transcends its intended nationalistic purpose by favoring character development over glorified, sweeping battle sequences. Throughout the film, Mizoguchi uses precise composition, framing, and space in order to reflect the rigidity of the deeply rooted tradition and class structure of feudal Japan: the overhead shot of Lord Asano’s isolated confinement behind a folded screen; the loyal samurais pleading for justice before the biased court; the locked gate separating the vassal from witnessing his master’s fate; Oishi’s reverent visit to Lady Asano (Mitsuko Miura) on the anniversary of her husband’s death. Inevitably, it is the undying allegiance and personal sacrifice of the samurais that elevate them to legendary status. Like the Genroku samurais of Lord Asano, Mizoguchi’s The 47 Ronin is a stellar moment in an otherwise ignoble and tragic period of Japanese history.
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