Chusingura (1963)

February 20, 2003 • Film, japan, Reviews

[director Hiroshi Inagaki]

Color 207 min

Hiroshi Inagaki has a curious and original directorial style. He takes fascinating stories, with dark premises, and bathes them in light (this film is so awash in bright color that there is practically no shadow). Then he gets a bunch of excellent actors and puts them to the task of playing very complex characterizations. And then, through his staging and his editing, he surgically removes all dramatic tension from the movie.

This production exemplifies all those aspects of the director’s craft. It’s like most of Inagaki’s films, more promise than execution. These are not really bad films. In fact, Inagaki is commendable for his extraordinary humanistic outlook, which he brings to all of his movies. But there is simply no tension in his movies, no dramatic impetus to move the story forward. This is especially problematic when the end result is over four hours long.

In his Samurai movies (the historic Miyamoto Mushashi movies with Toshiro Mifune) Inagaki graced us with static scene after static scene, with very little payoff (save the duel at the end of the second film). This film is similar, amplified by its incredible length. An epic of this kind of scope needs to be entertaining, and this one isn’t. Only at the end, where there is an absolutely titanic battle, is the film interesting. Suddenly, the camera moves, the editing is sharp, and character is delineated clearly and quickly within the context of the action. Inagaki really shines when he’s filming action. But apparently, he seems to think the rest of life is boring and long. So he makes it that way in his films.

This one is a faithful adaptation of the 47 loyal ronin, a tale of duty and honor that is one of the most popular stories in Japanese entertainment. When a lord is betrayed by another lord and, through a series of machinations, forced to slay himself, the 47 most loyal retainers in his clan come up with an ingenious, hideous idea to make sure their master is avenged: they pretend to disband the clan. For a year they move through the kingdom in various disguises, integrating themselves into the commonfolk population. Then, one early morning, after a year has passed, they all silently converge on the gates of the betraying lord’s manor. Trapping his samurai inside the manor, they slaughter absolutely every last one of them, and then force the lord to commit seppuku.

Then, as the sun rises yet again on the East, all 47 ronin commit suicide together to rejoin their lord in the afterlife. It’s a great adventure story, with many opportunities for exciting encounters. But Inagaki manages to take all of the entertainment out of it, developing stories around many of the ronin that should be good, but, thanks to Inagaki’s natural restraint, turn out simply boring. It’s not a fun movie, and it leaves you with the impression that it could have been fantastic. So that’s the lay of the land. Whatcha gonna do?

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