Welcome to Akira Kurosawa info!  Log in or Register?

Film Club: The 47 Ronin (Mizoguchi 1941-42)

The 47 RoninAlthough this month’s film club discussion of Kurosawa’s two Sanshiro Sugata films hasn’t been exactly lively, I think Chris has more than made up for it by providing quality where there has been something of a lack of quantity. If you haven’t yet, I recommend that you take a look at the discussion threads titled Instances of Buddhism and Shintoism, Any verification for this absurdity?, and Mining the shallows.

In ‘Mining the shallows’, Chris touches on the question how much of a propaganda film Sanshiro Sugata and its sequel really are. This is a question that we can extend also to the film that we will now be adding to the mix, Kenji Mizoguchi‘s 1941-42 work The 47 Ronin. While Mizoguchi’s two-part film certainly conforms to many of the requirements of wartime propaganda, it could nevertheless be said that Mizoguchi escapes in the film into the past and into a style of film making which makes it possible for him to avoid many of the pitfalls of pure, run-of-the-mill propaganda.

In fact, what Chris has written about Buddhism and Shintoism in Sanshiro Sugata may similarly be quite relevant to The 47 Ronin, whose source material as Peter B. High notes in The Imperial Screen has “obvious spiritist connotations”. (305) The basic tale, something of a national legend in Japan, is based on a historical event, which has been turned into a film numerous times. Actually, one of the most recent productions is scheduled to come out in 2012, and has Keanu Reeves attached in a starring role. For his own film, Mizoguchi used a kabuki play rather than the historical account as his source: for more information about the play, see here and here.

Copies of The 47 Ronin are available from at least eBay and Amazon. And as a reminder, on the 1st of October, we will be turning to another wartime film, Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful. See the film club page for more information about our schedule.

Finally, a question: is the pace of the film club too fast for you, and should we rather have a new title once a month like we used to, and not two titles a month as we do now? Personally, I am having difficulties keeping up with the films, and must confess that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to watch Sanshiro Sugata II this month. I’ll do my best to catch up, of course.


Discussion

  link

lawless

I am finding two films a month a bit fast myself. I still have to find time to watch I Was Born, But … before I can get Sanshiro Sugata from Netflix. (I’m on a one-movie-at-a-time plan.)

  link

cocoskyavitch

Chushingura and 47 Ronin
Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941-42 work The 47 Ronin was one of the first non-Kurosawa films I saw in my efforts to broaden my understanding of Japanese cinema. Drawn in by the legend of the filmmaker and his reputation, I put myself to the task of doing a comparative study of Inagaki’s Chushingura (with Mifune in a small role) to Mizoguchi’s version of the same oft-told tale.

Both films tell the historical story of Lord Asano, the insult of Kira and Asano’s attack, arrest and subsequent seppuku and then, the story of Asano’s former retainers as ronin. Their struggle is to avenge their former Lord while retaining their own dignity and right.

This is a story known so very well in Japan that Inagaki could play with interweaving personal stories and complications, knowing his audience had the story down pat. This freedom allowed him to create pageants and parades to further treat the eye to a Hollywood-like drenching in specatacle. Inagaki’s version has a Hollywood-like quality and a penchant for the impressive shot. Bosley Crowther, the N.Y. Time’s 60’s reviewer declared, “”CHUSHINGURA,” the Japanese picture that opened at the Toho Cinema yesterday, is another of those stately legend-dramas that is so exquisite pictorially that it almost compensates the patient viewer for its paucity of drama and its heavy pace.” Ha!

A cameo by Mifune illustrates the way in which Inagaki creates a different temperament for the film, which is, altogether warmer and more accessible in some ways than Mizoguchi’s-Mifune plays a drunken ronin, uncertain as to which side he will join-that detail alone-the use of cameo star peower-is very Hollywood-like in it’s strategizing.

Despite the sound and color of Inagaki’s version, the solemn, elegant and elgaic tone of Mizoguchi’s black and white silent tale struck me forcibly as the finer telling-and the more cinematically astute. Where Inagaki goes for color-and by this I mean the incidental details, as well as the actual use of gorgeous color composing, Mizoguchi goes for light and shade and texture. Broken in half by the war, and almost breaking the film studio, Mizoguchi’s film, in its two pieces, forms a partriotic call to duty and sacrifice, whilst also raising questions of the value of the code of bushido.

It is the very restraint of the shots-distant and high, as was often Mizogushi’s wont-that emphasize the painful, slow walk to inevitable death. Curious for a “patriotic film”. Can you cite another film in two parts that was filmed at one studio, then, after time, is concluded at another? It was not by any account a success. In fact, prior to this version, filming “47 ronin” was a guaranteed moneymaker for a company down at the heels-but in the case of Mizoguchi’s film, it nearly broke the sponsor of the first part. Mizoguchi moved to Shochiku for the second half-retaining a stately, slow, purposeful pace there as well.

The visual beauty of Mizoguchi’s filmmaking serves the story well-and creates a solemn tension. No wonder Kurosawa admired Mizoguchi’s attention to historical detail-there are scenes of such extraordinary fine detail that the viewer might read the images as documentary. It’s said that Mizoguchi spent more than five times the usual budget on costumes and architectural settings.

The precise compositions framed by the camera emphasize class standings. Mizoguchi separates the Lord Asano after the attack with a gorgeous folding screen that is moved to separate him from all others. His isolation is emphasized by a high shot-and one cannot help but feel the whole of the shogun’s power weighing on this Lord’s shoulders, pressing him down and in.

The film clevely uses elipsis to keep the drama internal rather than external like an action film. The short attack scene is really the major action-even the seppuku is done discretely-and is al the more worrying for being elided.

Scholars note that Mizoguchi was awarded much prestige and honor by the government for his film. They clearly saw it as a dignified representation of patriotic sacrifice, despite being a stinker at the box office. However- surely the story has been picked over many times, and it has been brought to light that Mizoguchi’s story may be “read” as easily as a commentary of the uselessness and waste of the bushido code-of its inherent contraditions and inhumanity.

  link

Vili Maunula

Thanks for the comparison, Coco! Coming to think of it, there would probably be a whole book’s worth of material there if one decided to watch all film versions of the 47 ronin story, and do a compare/contrast exercise!

You conclude by noting that the story may be considered “a commentary of the uselessness and waste of the bushido code-of its inherent contraditions and inhumanity.” Do you think this was Mizoguchi’s own take in his film?

  link

cocoskyavitch

Vili said,

” You conclude by noting that the story may be considered “a commentary of the uselessness and waste of the bushido code-of its inherent contraditions and inhumanity.” Do you think this was Mizoguchi’s own take in his film?”

I think, Vili, that at least 30% and maybe as much as 60% of the credit Mizoguchi gets for being “sympathetic” to women might actually be the overlay of the observer. There are some die-hard critics who hold firmly that Mizoguchi was a misogynist (his personal life seems to support at least a complicated attitude toward women!)

I suggest, then, that Mizoguchi is complicated-and that is almost always a good thing for art. I believe that he may have had ambivalent or even mutually contradictory feelings toward women, and towards the traditions of the samurai code, respectively.

That creates a space for the cineaste to choose which side he/she thinks Mizoguchi’s sympathies might lay. So, having been a bit dodgey/slippery (but honestly so) what do you think?

  link

Vili Maunula

Honestly, I don’t know, Coco.

From what I understand of the film, I don’t really see Mizoguchi going against the bushido code here. I also think that it would have been quite brave of him to do considering that this story is traditionally very much a celebration of the bushido code and tradition, and the military government at the time was certainly very much hoping to promote those same ideals, which I suppose is the reason they asked Mizoguchi to make the film.

Then again, as I watched The 47 Ronin I felt that I probably missed quite a lot. The film is very much driven by its dialogue, and I’m not sure if the English subtitles that I have in the Korean print are able to communicate the nuances that may be present in the original Japanese.

  link

Ugetsu

Coco

I think, Vili, that at least 30% and maybe as much as 60% of the credit Mizoguchi gets for being “sympathetic” to women might actually be the overlay of the observer. There are some die-hard critics who hold firmly that Mizoguchi was a misogynist (his personal life seems to support at least a complicated attitude toward women!)

I suggest, then, that Mizoguchi is complicated-and that is almost always a good thing for art. I believe that he may have had ambivalent or even mutually contradictory feelings toward women, and towards the traditions of the samurai code, respectively.

That creates a space for the cineaste to choose which side he/she thinks Mizoguchi’s sympathies might lay. So, having been a bit dodgey/slippery (but honestly so) what do you think?

Back in this thread I outlined some of the reasons why Mizoguchi has slipped down in my estimation. Not that I don’t love his films, I do, but I don’t think he is a film maker of the status of Kurosawa or Ozu. And the primary reason is his treatment of his main theme, Japanese women. From what I know of his background, he was deeply ashamed that his mother and sister had to sacrifice so much for him, thanks to his deadbeat father. So while I have no doubt he was genuinely and politically a ‘feminist’, in that he recognised that Japanese society and culture created enormous problems for women, and that he wanted that changed, I don’t think he had a coherent view of what this meant, either intellectually or emotionally. Too often his female characters are just ‘symbols’, not real women, and too often he is just lecturing us (using very beautiful images) about how life sucked for Japanese women from all levels of society, without ever moving beyond this simple observation. Some of his final films, notably his last one, Street of Shame, does move a bit beyond this, but I suspect that a lot of the quality of this (and his other all female cast films), owes as much to the actresses as it does to the director. Contrast with this the immense sophistication of Ozu’s dissection of the Japanese family or Kurosawas exploration of power structures in Japanese history.

Of course, he was a hugely skilled film maker and his films will always be watched for this reason. Unfortunately, I do think that his skill at conjuring up a period has led critics and viewers into seeing depths that just aren’t there. It is also implied in the notes for some of the recent releases that he was not adverse to deliberately injecting some eastern exoticism into his films precisely to attract praise from western critics looking for someone more ‘genuinely’ Japanese than Kurosawa.

So my personal view of Mizoguchi’s attitude to his women is not that he was a feminist or misogynist, just that he simply didn’t have the intellectual sophistication to look deeper than his own personal mixture of guilt and admiration for the women in his life. And since the role of women was supposedly his ‘big theme’ (although I believe even he was a little embarrassed about this, insisting that he only made ‘womens’ films because thats what the studio wanted), then I think this downgrades his status as an artist of the very highest calibre. Certainly one of the most skilled of film makers, certainly a top rank world director, but not, in my opinion, one of the ‘true greats’.

  link

cocoskyavitch

Ugetsu I appreciate your indication that Mizoguchi may not have been intellectually sophisticated. Visual poetry does not always translate into intellectual sophistication, nor is sophistication always necessary to art.There are critics that think Kurosawa is anti-intellectual. Donald Richie indicates as much. Doesn’t matter much to me. That Mizoguchi’s films are ravishingly beautiful and rich and his stories engage-that’s probably enough. But, sure…I do agree: Ozu and Kurosawa-kings of cinema! Yes!

You also add:

So my personal view of Mizoguchi’s attitude to his women is not that he was a feminist or misogynist, just that he simply didn’t have the intellectual sophistication to look deeper than his own personal mixture of guilt and admiration for the women in his life.

Nicely said. He had much darker things mixed in with the shame…some real hatred and anger, too, and possibly sadism…likely that’s where folks think “misogynist”. You know the story about him showing the stab wound from a woman on his shoulder and saying “You don’t know women unless you have one of these”-and the fact that he tried to destroy the directing career of his leading lady. And, he may have given his lover the std that made her insane…
I think Mizoguchi is very complex, to say the least.

  link

Vili Maunula

Fascinating discussion here. My feeling towards Mizoguchi has been similar to that of Ugetsu’s. While the films I have seen from him can be quite beautifully shot, I can’t really say that I have found those films very interesting. “Simplistic” is the word that has often come to mind. The 47 Ronin is, I think, a good example, although not an entirely fair one to be honest, as there would have been very little that Mizoguchi could have done with the story under the censorship conditions.

This is not to condemn Mizoguchi as a film maker. All I’m saying is that his goals as a director and my goals as the audience don’t really seem to meet.

  link

cocoskyavitch

And yet, Ugetsu is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen. I pursued that film like a demoness myself, finding it once, years ago on Video, then never seeing it again, being haunted by the images, the feel of that film-then Criterion’s new release and new life.
Mere sensation? Aw, guys, FORM IS CONTENT. That’s my story, and happily, I am sticking to it!

  link

lawless

I just finished watching The 47 Ronin yesterday, and am somewhat at a loss how to react. His directorial and storytelling choices — the latter especially — sometimes baffled me, and in the second half especially, it felt like either the translation was inadequate, as Vili suggests, or there was more behind the words than the translation conveys. I don’t know if the dialogue, and thus the story, was meant to be elusive (and allusive), but rather than simplistic, it felt complex and somewhat obscure.

Despite that, however, the film, especially the second half, held my interest more than the silent Ozu films — perhaps because I’m familiar with the story and knew what was going to happen, but didn’t know where Mizoguchi was going with it His films look a lot different than Kurosawa’s, with the lack of close-ups and long takes, and he frames many of his shots architecturally. As an aside, the sets were amazing.

As for any critique of bushido, I think that comes from our own perceptions of the waste involved in ritual suicide over a matter of honor. The fiancee’s suicide seems particularly wasteful, although I was surpised that it came as a surprise to the characters. It seemed the most likely meaning of her words about making the lie (of her being a man) true.

This is one I’m going to need to rewatch.

Leave a comment

Log in or Register to post a comment!