In his 70th feature, “47 Ronin,” veteran Kon Ichikawa takes his first stab at an oft-filmed “Chushingura,” about clan revenge in 18th-century feudal Japan. Good-looking, precision piece of work will appeal to Japan specialists familiar with the historical tale and interpretive subtleties, but more general buffs drawn by Ichikawa’s name are likely to be turned off by the pic’s dry, largely undramatic style and confusing, character-heavy narrative.
Ken Takakura (“Black Rain,””Mr. Baseball”) toplines as Oishi, chamberlain of the Ako clan, who plans revenge on government official Lord Kira for a contretemps that led to the Ako clan head’s execution. Oishi suspects a coverup and gathers around him a group of like-minded ronin.
After assembling war funds by selling vast quantities of salt, Oishi fabricates graft rumors that force Kira to retire and later move out of Edo Castle into a private manse. Kira’s relative, Irobe, helps Kira to fortify his dwelling and also to outsmart Oishi in the rumor game. On Dec. 14, 1702, exactly 21 months after the original contretemps, Oishi leads his 47 ronin in a nighttime attack on the snow-covered mansion.
Ichikawa’s storytelling style, which reportedly sticks closer to the historical events than other versions have, is clean and uninflected, with the action zipping back and forth between a series of indoor locations (denoted by captions). Even from the early going, however, the amount of information foreign audiences are asked to retain in terms of who’s who makes following events virtually impossible without a detailed synopsis.
Though the film’s look is always pristinely beautiful, and performances vivid , without an understanding of the story’s crosscurrents it’s hard to become emotionally involved. Pic’s 10-minute finale of Oishi and company slicing their way through the mansion’s surrounding labyrinth and warren of connecting rooms is impressive, however. But for most viewers it will be too little too late.
Tech credits are all immaculate, and there’s a cute performance by model/singer/actress Rie Miyazawa as Oishi’s love interest. Of the dozen or so other versions of the tale, the best known is Kenji Mizoguchi’s mammoth, two-part “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin of the Genroku Era” (1942-42).