47 Ronin
(Shijushichinin no Shikaku)
Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * *

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In Japan in 1701, Asano, the daimyo of Ako, assaulted Kira (Rie Miyazawa), an official of the Shogunate, in Edo Castle, for which offense he was ordered to commit suicide. The following year, one of Asano's former retainers, Kuranosuke Oishi (Ken Takakura), gathers a group of his lord's other followers and with them plots to take vengeance on Kira, whom he holds responsible for Asano's death.

Kon Ichikawa's 47 Ronin is a consistently beautiful, frequently fascinating, if not entirely successful film.

From its beginning until its end, there is hardly a moment of the movie that is not captivatingly gorgeous. Carefully arranging his sets and characters, perfectly choreographing the movements of the latter, and filming each charming image with tremendous skill, Ichikawa has crafted one of the loveliest cinematic visions I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. In fact, virtually every instant of every scene presents the viewer with a stunning tableau. Whether he frames a band of samurai conspiring at night with the silhouettes of trees or shows the leader of these men standing before the entrance to a house under a bough laden with cherry blossoms, or even simply presents two characters sitting quietly in some austere room, the director never fails to bring a remarkable beauty to his film.

Sadly, the story Ichikawa relates in 47 Ronin is rarely as intoxicating as are its images. The tale is complex and interesting enough to retain the viewer's attention throughout the movie's duration, but the director is so concerned with relating the minutiae of the conspirators' plot that he loses himself in its details and often fails to involve the moviegoer emotionally in his characters' lives. The viewer thus sees the plans these individuals make but is not consistently allowed to participate in their sorrows, their fears, or their joys. 47 Ronin is, as a result, not nearly as affecting as it could have been.

This is not to say, however, that the director is wholly unsuccessful at engaging the moviegoer with his characters. Not only has he evoked another era with such skill that the viewer is sure to find himself immersed in that time, so that he is caught up in its distinctive values and concerns, but, what is more, he never gives in to histrionic excesses when he does include a moment revealing the characters' emotions. Rather than having some individual wail or contort his face to show the depth of his feelings, Ichikawa instead allows subtle gestures and tones to bring that person's profoundest emotions to the surface. The effect he thereby achieves is genuinely appealing.

Moreover, the movie's ending is particularly effective. Having gradually built up an awareness that the events of the story can only end in violence, and having so aroused an anxious sense of anticipation, Ichikawa makes the bloody, savage fights with which his film concludes particularly thrilling. The moviegoer is sure to be captivated by the ronin's invasion of Kira's house and their duels and struggles with that man's retainers.

Oddly, these events are made especially emotive by their being colored by the director's ambiguous presentation of the occurrences which led to Asano's death and which thus prompted the protagonists to seek their revenge. At no point in the film does Ichikawa reveal the truth about the quarrel that arose between Kira and Asano. Instead, he makes the moviegoer wonder if, perhaps, the latter was not even in the right, that, possibly, all the ronin's efforts are directed against an innocent man. Rather than distancing the viewer from the characters, however, such an approach reminds him of their humanity, of the futility of so much of human life, and thus moves him far more than a depiction of a righteous struggle could have done.

Although I cannot say that 47 Ronin is a great film, given that until its well realized denouement it is only infrequently able to involve the moviegoer with its characters, it does relate an interesting story and is always so intoxicatingly lovely that it is a real joy to watch.

Review by Keith Allen

Note: 47 Ronin is available on DVD at

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