The 47 Ronin (1941)

The 47 Ronin (“Genroku Chûshingura”)47 ronin poster
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Written by  Kenichiro Hara, Seika Mayama, and Yoshikata Yoda
IMA Productions/Shôchiku Eiga

First viewing/Streaming on Hulu Plus


“Bushido is realized in the presence of death. This means choosing death whenever there is a choice between life and death. There is no other reasoning.” ― Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

The Japanese Ministry of Information commissioned this film as propaganda to promote loyalty and sacrifice for WWII.  What it got was a contemplative and non-violent film of great beauty that has outlived its original purpose.

This is a two-part film relating one of Japan’s most famous historical legends, the Ako Vendetta of 1702.  It is a true story that has been embellished in countless plays and movies.

Lord Asano is helping to arrange a ceremonial welcome for Imperial messengers at the Shogun’s place.  Chief of Protocol Lord Kira insults his efforts.  Asano loses his temper and attacks Kira, failing to kill him.  For this outrageous breach of decorum, the shogun orders Asano to commit harakiri.  He accepts this calmly, saying his only regret is that he didn’t kill Kira.  Most of the Lord’s property is seized as well, leaving his retainers masterless. Lord Kira is not criticized at all.  Gradually, public opinion takes Lord Asano’s side in the dispute.

47 ronin 2

Oishi, Lord Asano’s Chief Counselor, takes charge of the ex-samurai (ronin).  Most of them want to immediately slay Lord Kira to avenge their former master.  Oishi counsels patience and puts them through long and frustrating deliberations.  Forty-seven ronin finally agree to attack and pledge to follow Oishi unquestioningly.  Then, there is another long delay while the shogun decides whether to restore the Asano House under Lord Asano’s brother. During this delay, Oishi leads a life of dissipation and the ronin scatter, most of them living in extreme poverty and disgrace.

One year after Lord Asano’s death, the ronin attack Kira’s castle and kill him.  His head is placed on Asano’s grave.  The ronin have honorably avenged their Lord so that his soul can rest without bitterness.  After further deliberations, all the ronin are ordered to commit harikiri. They do this with great bravery and honor.

47 ronin 1

The story might presage a samurai epic with plenty of swordplay and gore. In fact, other than the scuffle with Lord Kira at the beginning, the attack and all the suicides take place off-screen.  It is really the story of Oichi and the hard decisions he has to make, many of them very unpopular, to preserve the Asano honor, and the great discipline with which the ronin follow him, even when they bitterly disagree.

I was not looking forward to a four-hour samurai epic at all but I loved this film.  First off, it is just so gorgeous that I probably could have happily spent the running time gazing at the images with the sound and subtitles turned off.  I think the story would have been lost in a shorter film.  The message almost required that the viewer live with Oishi’s deliberations and the long delays.  Fortunately, Mizoguchi has a special interest in the plight of women, and there are several sub-plots showing their roles and fate.  The acting is pretty wonderful.  Recommended.

Clip – end of Part I – Oishi’s wife and younger children leave him

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