In “Crest of Betrayal,” director Kinji Fukasaku tackles the traditions and history of his homeland through the innovative combining of two oft-told local legends:”Chushingura” (better known as “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin”), the story of 18th-century shogunate intrigue and loyalty, and “Yotsuya Kaidan,” a chilling ghost story about a beautiful woman who falls victim to passion and evil.
Beautiful scenes and the clever weaving of the two story lines should ensure a solid showing with the Japanese public and Japan buffs, despite somewhat flat perfs. But helmer’s cleverness in mixing the tales will be all but lost on the uninitiated.
The link between the stories is Iemon Tamiya (Koichi Sato), an Edo-era samurai caught in a world of paradoxes: poor even though he’s a samurai, a cultured musician who has murdered women for money, a lonely orphan yet a member of several groups.
After a long time wandering, he finally finds acceptance as a samurai for the Asano family — a feudal lord under the Shogun. The “Chushingura” plot revolves around the fact that Asano is forced to commit hara-kiri by his superior, Lord Kira. Traditionally, 47 of Asano’s samurai remain loyal and become ronin (or wandering samurai with no master), secretly hatching and eventually executing a plan to avenge their former master. In this telling, though, Iemon has been added as the would-be 48th, who seems loyal only to himself.
He’s lulled into inactivity by the appearance of a beautiful prostitute named Oiwa, played with too much cuteness by Saki Takaoka. Suddenly, a third party enters the scene, eventually causing the demise of their illicit but happy affair.
The intruder is a mute, noble girl called O-ume, whose portrayal by Keiko Oginome is flat and falls short on believability. O-ume also happens to be the granddaughter of a samurai employed by Lord Kira. Ultimately Oiwa and Iemon, both ghosts, witness the 47 ronins’ successful attack against Lord Kira.
The film is colorful and grandiose, full of the sights and sounds of traditional Japan, with a consistently high technical quality, and special nods to costuming, photography, art direction and music. Fukasaku was one of two co-directors of the Japanese sequences of Fox’s Pearl Harbor epic “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1969).
Though both stories have been produced innumerable times for stage, TV and film, “Crest of Betrayal’s” biggest competitor will be “47 Ronin,” a huge effort by rival production house Toho Eiga with a more famous cast that includes Ken Takakura, directed by Kon Ichikawa. Both are set for release in Japan on Oct. 22 .