Japan Journal, Part 1: The 47 Ronin

8 Apr

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My last blog entry, covering ESCAPADE IN JAPAN, was designed to be something of a hint as to why I’d go a month without a new entry. This week I returned from four weeks in Japan, a trip I’d long been planning to take after my retirement in September 2015. I spent three weeks in Tokyo and one week in Osaka, from which I visited Kyoto and Nara. There were a number of film-related sightseeing trips during that time, although my blog entries on the trip won’t be limited to those. I have a steady stream of thoughts, impressions and photos to share and I’m finding that the effort to process and sort through everything is slow and painstaking. I packed a lot of activity into four weeks and took thousands of photos and it will take some time and numerous entries to chronicle the key events. But I wanted to start with a short account of one of the first things I did on the trip, something that was important for me to do and an early emotional high point of the trip.

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When researching my trip, I sought out sites connected to famous events of Japanese history, folklore and literature. When I learned that the burial place of the 47 Ronin was right in the heart of Tokyo, I was determined to see it. When I learned that it was customary to leave gifts at the site, I made plans to do just that. The place is the Sengakuji Temple and it’s a short distance south of Tokyo Tower, south of Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace.

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The tale of the 47 Ronin and their patient and deliberate mission of revenge against the lord whose provocation cost them the life of their own lord is celebrated in several Japanese samurai films and TV series, often under the title, “Chushingura.” I’ve read one book in English about them and seen five of the movies, with a recently-acquired sixth on the DVD pile waiting to be seen. In short, the story starts out by detailing growing tensions between the two lords, one based in Edo (Tokyo) and one visiting the Shogun’s palace in Edo from a distant district.

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Here is a description taken from my IMDB review of THE LOYAL 47 RONIN (1958):

What impressed me right from the start was the way the script spelled out, in the opening 20 minutes, the escalating conflict between Lord Asano (Raizo Ichikawa) and Lord Kira (Osamu Takizawa) in the Imperial Palace at Edo so that I could understand exactly what issues were at stake as Kira, a highly placed nobleman, humiliates the more provincial Asano, who is being asked to host an event for an Imperial Envoy and needs some instruction in etiquette and protocol to avoid making mistakes. Asano’s devoted retainers work furiously to prevent any embarrassing mishaps, often at the last minute, and succeed admirably until Kira’s final provocation proves too much for the gentle, but high-strung Asano, who reacts with an act of violence that marks a grievous offense against the court. Asano is ordered by the Shogun to commit seppuku (ritual suicide); his grief-stricken retainers are even further outraged when they learn that Lord Kira will not be punished at all for his role in the incident. They want revenge, but must wait on the advice of Asano’s chief counselor, Oishi Kuranosuke (Kazuo Hasegawa), who has petitioned the Shogun to allow Asano’s younger brother to succeed him as Daimyo of Asano’s property. Only when this petition has been denied can the men begin a plan of action and only then under great secrecy. During this whole period, the ordinary people of the country are eager to see Asano’s men get revenge and are disgusted at their seeming reticence. Lord Kira himself is aware of the prevailing mood and hires extra security, especially after he’s been moved by the Shogun to an estate two miles away from his palace, just so the Shogun won’t become embroiled in whatever action transpires. When the climactic raid finally occurs, on a winter night as the snow falls, it is quite magnificently staged amidst sprawling studio sets representing Kira’s massive estate.

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The 47 Ronin took their revenge on December 14, 1702 and 46 of them committed mass seppuku together the following February 4, 1703. (One was pardoned by the Shogun and another retainer committed seppuku before the raid.)

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I first saw CHUSHINGURA (1962), Hiroshi Inagaki’s all-star Toho Pictures version, in 1974 at the start of an influential Japanese film festival held at the Regency Theater in New York that led to my immersion in a wide array of classic Japanese films throughout the 1970s. I’ll never forget how everyone in the packed theater kept silent during the three hours of build-up leading to the spectacular half-hour finale, only to burst into spontaneous affirmations, cheers and applause when the action started. Thanks to its place as the premiere offering of this seminal festival, the film has always had a special place in my heart. (I went to most of the films at the festival that season, joined sometimes by classmates from film school.)

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Decades later, when I saw an earlier version of the story, the aforementioned THE LOYAL 47 RONIN, on DVD, I wondered why that version hadn’t played at festivals in New York back in the 1970s. The way in which the 1958 version lays out the series of slights delivered to Asano and embarrassments suffered by him helps western viewers understand the issues and their importance and why the characters act the way they do and why the customs of the time were so rigid. As I wrote in my IMDB review, “This 1958 version, directed by Kunio Watanabe, is laid out carefully and concisely, keeping track of the many important characters and their various movements over the three years or so in which it takes place. Scenes are shot simply and elegantly, each conveying just enough information to keep you entranced and then cutting to the next element in the narrative at just the right time. Key scenes build slowly to an emotional pitch as we come to grasp what the characters are feeling while understanding the need for the loyal ronin to wait and bide their time until the moment is right.”

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I’ve always been moved by this story and its chronicle of men whose loyalty to their lord and commitment to a course of action to avenge his unjust death outweighs all else in their lives. What’s fascinating to me is the way the men plan their revenge carefully and meticulously, managing to keep their intentions and goals completely hidden from those nobles who suspect the ronin of planning just such a mission and from the ordinary citizens of the country who are anxious to see the haughty and arrogant Lord Kira get his comeuppance.

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I visited Sengakuji Temple on Thursday, March 10, 2016, my second full day in Tokyo. The temple is one block up from the Sengakuji train station on the “A” line (Asakusa), a short subway ride from my hotel. There’s a little side street leading up to the outer gate, set back from the nearest main street, with modern houses and buildings all around it.

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Near the entrance is a statue of the men’s leader, Oishi Kuranosuke, the head chamberlain for the Asano estate and the one who directed the retainers’ secret mission of vengeance while outwardly leading a life of dissipation to throw off the suspicions of the Shogun and Lord Kira. Oishi, whose actual name is Oishi Yoshio, is often the lead character in film and TV versions of the story.

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After passing through the next gate, I stopped to purchase a brochure in English from the caretaker and then followed the path and the steps to the gravesites for the men on a raised area of the temple grounds.

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I left a bottle of saké, one of the customary gifts left at the site, at the main shrine near the graves and paid my respects at each of the graves. (I made sure to let the caretaker know just who was leaving the bottle, so he could thank me when he and his pals were sharing it.)

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After traveling halfway around the world, it was quite an emotional experience to be standing on a spot so intimately connected to an event with such resonance in Japanese culture and to feel the presence of the men who participated in that event, whose loyalty, fearlessness, selflessness, patience and restraint made them enduring heroes in the eyes of their countrymen.

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And it helped that the place wasn’t crawling with tourists.

There was a museum on the grounds which displayed various artifacts and showed a film, the English version of which was projected by the kindly lady proprietor just for my benefit, telling a concise sum-up of the story. A nearby hall offers an elaborate exhibit of detailed doll figures of the men, each standing about three feet tall. No photography was allowed in the museum or the doll display, so I have no pictures of them. The English-language brochure offers a guide to each of the 13 key spots on the temple grounds, including the plum tree transplanted from the house where Oishi Kuranosuke’s eldest son Chikara committed seppuku; another plum tree donated by Asano’s widow; a statue of zen master Sawaki Kodo Roshi, and the well, still in use, where the Ronin washed the decapitated head of Lord Kira after the raid.

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While I was there, I passed a group being given a guided tour, conducted in Japanese.

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In the future I would like to do a detailed comparison of the different film versions, but I would need to see them all again and get numerous screen grabs. For now, here is a list of the film versions I’ve seen:

THE LOYAL 47 RONIN (1958/Japan, 163 min., color/Daiei) DVD (in Japanese with English subs.) Dir.: Kunio Watanabe. Cast: Kazuo Hasegawa, Koji Tsuruta, Shintaro Katsu, Raizo Ichikawa, Machiko Kyo.

My IMDB review

CHUSHINGURA (1962/Japan, 207 min., color/Toho) DVD (in Japanese with English subs.) Dir.: Hiroshi Inagaki. Cast: Yuzo Kayama, Tatsuya Mihashi, Akira Takarada, Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Koshiro Matsumoto.

AKO-JO DANZETSU (THE FALL OF AKO CASTLE, aka SWORDS OF VENGEANCE, 1978/Japan, 159 min., color/Toei) DVD (in Japanese with English subs.) Dir.: Kinji Fukasaku. Cast: Kinnosuke Yorozuya, Masaomi Kondo, Kensaku Morita, Mariko Okada, Mieko Harada, Sonny Chiba, Tetsuro Tamba, Toshiro Mifune.

My IMDB review

47 RONIN (aka KON ICHIKAWA’S 47 RONIN, 1994/Japan, 129 min., color/Toho) DVD (in Japanese with English subs.) Dir.: Kon Ichikawa. Cast: Ken Takakura, Kiichi Nakai, Rie Miyazawa, Ruriko Asaoka.

47 RONIN (2013/U.S., 118 min., color/Universal) DVD (in English) Dir.: Carl Rinsch. Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Ko Shibasaki.

I still need to see Kenji Mizoguchi’s four-hour 1941 version, THE 47 RONIN (GENROKU CHUSHINGURA), which I recently purchased on DVD. And I would love to see the 52-episode TV series from 1971, “Dai Chushingura,” which starred Toshiro Mifune as Oishi, even if it weren’t subtitled.

Here is an excerpt from my IMDB review of AKO-JO DANZETSU:

THE FALL OF AKO CASTLE (1978) is yet another version of the story of the 47 Ronin, a historical event that has resonated in Japanese popular and literary culture for the last 300 years. If you want to try to understand Japanese culture and the Japanese character, a good place to start would be this story and the different versions of it that have been written and filmed over the decades. This film, directed by Kinji Fukasaku for the Toei Studio, is the third version I’ve seen (with three more waiting) and it compares quite favorably with the others, Kunio Watanabe’s THE LOYAL 47 RONIN (1958), done at Daiei and also reviewed on this site, and CHUSHINGURA (1962), done at Toho. All three versions are spectacular productions and highly recommended, but I tend to like the 1958 film best because it explicitly enunciates many of the key details that westerners would need to know to understand the incident and its aftermath. Specifically, it devotes its first 20 minutes to the build-up to the incident that caused so much trouble and led to the downfall of the Asano clan, i.e. Lord Kira’s insults directed at Lord Asano and Asano’s violent reaction in the Shogun’s castle, a violation of court etiquette so severe it results in Lord Asano’s death. We understand exactly what happened and why. In Fukasaku’s version, the incident is handled rather quickly and gotten out of the way in the film’s opening scene, so it helps to have seen the other versions first. Fukasaku’s overarching emphasis is on the grieved reactions of the samurai in Asano’s clan. We see how the incident and the death of their lord impacted them and how they reacted emotionally. There is some time spent on other factions and other affected parties, but not much. The overwhelming emphasis is on the men and their emotional states during the long build-up to the eventual raid on Lord Kira’s residence and the mission of revenge. As such, I found the whole thing very affecting and there are moments during the big finale (which lasts at least a half-hour) when an audience at a screening, especially during the glory days of Japanese film festivals in Manhattan, would have erupted into cheers and applause.

This film has a formal beauty that one doesn’t always find in Fukasaku’s films. His Yakuza films of the 1970s are filled with gritty street-level cinematography and hand-held camera movement, particularly in the action scenes. There’s a whole different aesthetic at work, for the most part, in THE FALL OF AKO CASTLE. The compositions are beautifully lit and designed, boasting a quality that would compare with the visual elegance in both of the cited previous versions of this tale. On the other hand, he brings an occasional chaotic quality to the action sequences and scenes of men in conflict and turmoil that echoes such elements in his Yakuza films. Violence in Fukasaku is rarely choreographed; it’s usually quite messy—just like in real life. However, there are moments in the final battle here, particularly when Sonny Chiba goes into action, that are quite artfully staged.

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In Part 2 of my Japan Journal, I’ll be visiting the site in Shimoda, on the Izu Peninsula, where once walked the two Americans who were most instrumental in opening up Japan to the outside world in 1853-56.

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One Response to “Japan Journal, Part 1: The 47 Ronin”

  1. Ed Rampell April 11, 2016 at 1:46 AM #

    Hey Brian,

    Konnichiwa! Howzit brah?

    I’ve always admired your film writing and encyclopedic screen acumen, cinematic samurai that you are. But after reading this entry it seems to me that you could also be a good travel writer. Good photos, too. At the same time you were in the Land of the Rising Sun, LA Opera coincidentally presented “Madame Butterfly.” If you’re interested, here is my review: http://hollywoodprogressive.com/madame-butterfly/.

    Brian, you’re retired now. Try to enjoy your writing process, have fun with it – writing can be a joy, it doesn’t have to be “painstaking.”

    I look forward to reading more of your entries and seeing more of your pix. And to talking to you about your adventures in Japan. Well, gotta go now – “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” is on TCM!

    Sayonara,

    Your Friend and Admirer Ed

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