I recently watched Kenji Mizoguchi’s film The 47 Ronin, released in two parts in 1941 and 1942, and based on a play cycle written by Seika Mayama. The film tells the historical tale of 47 (or 46, depending on the version of the tale) samurai who avenge their master’s death. That description is an oversimplification of the film’s plot, which I will summarize more thoroughly below, but I want to discuss the nature of samurai as depicted in the film – not as highly trained military men, but as “counselors” or “retainers,” as they are called in the film. Essentially, samurai became household administrators by the turn of the 18th century, when the action of The 47 Ronin takes place.
The film opens with an attempted murder: Lord Asano strikes Lord Kira while they are both at Edo Castle, but only wounds Kira in the attack. Asano overheard Kira insult him to another official, and struck him out of anger. This in itself was not necessarily a problem, but the attack was ill timed and done impulsively to a government official, which was not very samurai-like. The shogun (feudal military lord) sentences Asano to commit the suicide ritual of seppuku, while letting Kira go unscathed, despite his poor behavior in the castle. Because of Asano’s actions, the shogun also strips the Asano family and household of all its land and wealth, leaving Asano’s samurai as rōnin, or samurai with no master. This sets in motion the rest of the action in the film, which mainly consists of the main character Ōishi dithering while deciding how to resolve the fallout from his Lord Asano’s actions. The film is definitely more than a little Hamlet-esque in its re-telling of this national story.
Over the course of the rest of part 1 and in part 2, Ōishi petitions to have the house of Asano restored, regrets this decision, maneuvers to ensure the restoration doesn’t happen (more on this element later), and finally leads an attack on Kira’s house, killing him, and leading to the eventual ritual suicide of all 47 rōnin. It is a long film – both parts are nearly 2 hours long each – and the first part is shot from a frustratingly distant perspective, making it hard to distinguish characters and sometimes, even who is speaking. Yet the film is stunning in its quietness, and a serious examination of the samurai code of behavior and its consequences.
It is also a film with almost no fight scenes. This is not an exciting, action-driven film with lots of daring samurai fights. The climactic attack on Kira is all offscreen, and we don’t actually see anyone commit seppuku. This seems in keeping with the reality that the 47 rōnin were more like accountants, household employees, and bureaucrats than body guards. However, there is one truly exciting fight sequence that takes place during a Noh performance, between one of the rōnin and a performer he mistakes for Kira. When the rōnin attacks, we get a terrific battle between a regular samurai, and one dressed in full costume (sans mask) as the nochi-shite, or the protagonist in demon form. The inclusion of the noh performance itself is also a great element of the film. I am no expert in this particular theatrical tradition, but I really like it a lot.
To return to the machinations of the character of Ōishi, I would like to unpack exactly what his plans are through the entire film, as I think the film presents a somewhat alternative view of how he goes about the revenge plot. As the top-ranking samurai in the Asano household, Ōishi makes the formal request to have the house restored to good standing under Asano’s brother and heir. Later in the film, Ōishi says making this request was his greatest regret, because it locked he and the other rōnin into a difficult waiting period. They could not enact their revenge on Kira while the petition was being decided – that would be a dishonorable act. Then, if the petition were to be granted, they would have no basis for an attack, since they would no longer be rōnin. If Ōishi had never made the petition, the 47 rōnin could have enacted their revenge at any time, in keeping with the social codes of conduct they lived by. Instead, they had to wait and wait for the decision to be made, one way or another.
During this time, Ōishi begins to act very differently, and out of character for a proper samurai. He starts frequenting geisha houses, getting drunk, and carousing nightly. This behavior culminates in his divorce from his wife and the sending away of his children with her, except for his 15 year old son, whom he gives a choice to stay or go. (He stays.) The legend of the 47 Rōnin, from what I can tell, frames Ōishi’s behavior as sly manipulation to convince Lord Kira that the Asano rōnin were falling apart and had no intention of carrying out revenge, thus getting him and his house to relax their security, making it easier for an attack later on. However, the Mizoguchi adaptation seems to imply that, while this may have been an effect of Ōishi’s behavior, that he really did this in order to negatively affect the petition’s chances of success. Because so much hinged on the petition being denied, and because Ōishi felt so guilty about making the request in the first place, his behavior was meant to further denigrate the house of Asano, making it much less likely that it could be restored.
To return to the nature of samurai in the 18th century, they underwent major social transitions as Japan’s society changed from the more fractured feudal society to the military dictatorship of the shōgun, around 1600. The shogunate meant much less fighting for samurai to do, so they pursued other activities, coming scholars, courtiers, most importantly, bureaucrats. They were still revered for their embodiment of loyalty, strength, calmness, etc, but were no longer engaging in formal warfare. After the restoration of Imperial rule in 1868 (The Meiji Restoration), samurai were abolished as a special class, but proved tricky in the new political order. According to Wikipedia, “Their traditional guaranteed salaries were very expensive and in 1873 the government started taxing the stipends and began to transform them into interest-bearing government bonds; the process was completed in 1879. The main goal was to provide enough financial liquidity to enable former Samurai to invest in land and industry.” Japan then moved to modernize and formalize their military, and stripped samurai – now called Shizoku – of their right to wear a katana in public. The very final bow to this social class came after WWII, when the Shizoku was abolished in 1947.
So, the history of the samurai is an interesting one; it ends not with a bang, but with taxes and business opportunities, which makes the slow, plodding pace of The 47 Ronin seem much more appropriate. The film is now streaming on the Criterion Service and App.