Posted: 11/12/2002




by Del Harvey

This DVD is available for purchase at

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Chushingura is one of the most-filmed stories of all time. Based on historical fact, the story is now a blend of part truth and part myth. Like any heroic saga, The Tale of the 47 Ronin, as it is also known, is one of the most fascinating, thrilling, and eloquent stories ever to be filmed. The 1962 version, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki (Legend of Musashi) and written by Toshio Yasumi from several versions of the play (Shoraku Miyoshi, Senryu Namiki, and Izumo Takeda) is perhaps the best film version of the story of the loyal samurai who value honor and loyalty above all else.
A young lord attempts to combat the official corruption endemic to the Shogunate, only to be placed in an impossible conflict of duties. He refuses to bribe a Chancelor who is responsible for teaching him the etiquette to receive the Shogun’s envoys. The Chancelor goads him into drawing his sword when the envoys are present, a crime punishable by death. The young lord’s vassals are ordered to break up his estate, and his samurai to disband. To obey the Shogun, they must follow orders, but to be loyal to their master and to elemental fairness, they must revenge him. The conflict of obligations is the essential dilemma of Japanese society, which is why this is their national epic. The story is richly woven. Worth seeing just for the supremely gorgeous art works, buildings and costumes of 18th century Japan.

The time is early in the year 1701. Japan’s great civil wars has been over for nearly a century, but the samurai warriors class remains. Asano (Yuzo Kayama), a new young lord from the fierce country domain of Ako, gracefully accepts his initiation into state duties at Edo, the capitol city. But the petty, old Grand Master of Ceremonies, Chamberlain Kira (Chusha Ichikawa), betrays him when Lord Asano refuses to bribe him for his advice on official etiquette. Enraged and humiliated by Kira’s merciless greed, Asano draws his sword in the Shogun’s palace, a capital offense. Kira suffers only a slight wound, but gloats over the mock trial that condemns Asano to the ritual of hara-kiri suicide.

Ako’s lands are assigned to a new lord, and his warriors become ronin, masterless samurai with nowhere to go and no ancestral lord to serve. The outrage lives on in their hearts, but they are forbidden to act under pain of death. Chamberlain Oishi (Koshiro Matsumoto), Asano’s wise and loyal chief retainer, calms the others and urges them to obey in silence, as their day of revenge will come. They wait as patiently as possible for any word from Oishi. Through the succeeding months of furtive humiliation, self-sacrifice, poverty, and planning, the ronin reveal the Japanese virtue of personal loyalty at its zenith. When the faithful 47 arrive at their snowy day of revenge, each individual personality, from the stoical Oishi to the hotheaded, hard-drinking Tawaraboshi (Toshiro Mifune), has become a symbol of the samurai spirit.

The cast features many recognizable Japanese actors of the era, including Takashi Shimura, Setsuko Hara, Tatsuya Mihashi, and Reiko Dan. The story itself has been told and retold in countless plays, films, and books, and has inspired numerous other films, including the recent and superb thriller, Ronin.

There are three versions of Inagaki’s telling available: the shorter 108 minute version; a 204 minute version (the most commonly screened, even in the USA), and an over 4-hour long version. Filmed in wide screen 2.35:1 ratio and in Tohoscoope, Inagaki’s version is beautiful and rich in color and sound.

I first saw this film on the Castro Theatre’s wide screen years ago, and was struck by the film’s beauty and the lyric quality of it’s telling of this story. You would be extremely lucky to find it playing anywhere but on DVD or video these days. However you see it, I cannot recommend this film enough. It is truly a classic and one of my all-time favorites.

Del Harvey is a writer and the founder of Film Monthly who currently lives in Southern California. He is a devout Chicago Bears fan, and recently taught screenwriting at Columbia College for giggles.

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