June 20, 2010

Weighing the Love for 47 Loyal Ronin

I'm going to say it flat out: I'm not the biggest fan of Hiroshi Inagaki.

I don't count the Samurai series of films (I, II and III) as among my favorite jidai-geki. So I wasn't too thrilled about the prospect of sitting down to watch Chushingura, Inagaki's 1962 treatment of the famous Japanese tale of the loyal 47 ronin (masterless samurai). It was one of those things where I felt like I should see it, despite my reservations.

Well, I saw it. And although it was well made, it was typical Inagaki.

I say this somewhat contemptuously, because I feel Inagaki's cinematic "voice" has got to be one of the slickest, least critical ones in Japanese cinema. In Chushingura, the director fashioned a handsome-looking, straightforward version of the classic story, in which 47 ronin, whose lord is executed unfairly by corrupt officials, avenge their master against incredible odds...despite their inevitable fate: death. It's a story about love and unequivocal fealty, and the 47 ronin involved reflect the highest samurai standards, and are worthy of admiration through their sacrifice--a point made at the end during the samurai's long walk through the town after beheading their prime target.

Can you imagine how Kurosawa would've tackled this subject? Someone would've made a crack somewhere, I'll bet.

Inagaki's treatment is reverential, to say the least. He peppers the tale with a complex cast of characters but doesn't spend enough time on most of them for us to become too involved. That's all right, though--this is an all-star type of film with luminaries such as Toshiro Mifine and Takashi Shimura playing small but important roles. I'm OK with this kind of movie.

I'm not OK, however, with the lack of a perspective.

That is what most struck me about Chushingura...and it's what I least like about Inagaki's films. It's a traditional, spectacle-oriented treatment--without much social commentary. You're supposed to hate the corrupt official (played with expert nastiness and no redeeming qualities by Chusha Ichikawa) and applaud the ronin's dedication, though this loyalty even extends beyond family. The values of note are the traditional ones, not the new ones, and one cannot question a samurai's dedication to his master, even at the expense of his wife or children, whom he must leave to avenge his lord and, consequently, commit ritual suicide.

Don't you think Kobayashi would have something to say about this?

I don't think all films have to be critical, and there's something to be said for going "by the book" when adapting classic stories. But I do think Inagaki missed something in Chushingura, and that only affirms my belief that he was not one of the world's top directors. One of the ingredients that makes great cinema so special is vision, and only a few people have it. There has to be a reason for making a film of a well-known tale that differentiates the new version from others that preceded it.

This is, by the way, a systemic issue in cinema that's not solely relegated to Inagaki's canon. We do need more movie visionaries who aren't just purveyors of slo-mo and 3D.

I know you're out there.


  1. Really interesting and thoughtful comments here on a lauded Japanese filmmaker I've been severely underexposed to. Wonderful job with the blog.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Drew! And thanks for reading! Cheers.