Mizoguchi is best remembered for his historical and poetic epics. Films like Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu have helped shaped his image as a filmmaker whose talents lie in that of his virtuoso camera movements. This wasn’t always the case, though, as for my money, his best work is the less expressive social dramas like Gion bayashi and Sisters of the Gion. By 1940, he was better known for the latter, though the release of Story of Last Chrysanthemums in 1939 was an excellent showcase for his talent with the camera. His next film, this two part epic, seems to have been the most visible shift in his style, taking a well known tale in Japan and making it unrecognizable through his distinct personal vision. It’s an impressive film from a technical standpoint, but it’s lacking in other fields.
Lord Asano seeks Lord Kira of the Shogun court for advice, but because Asano isn’t aware that he’s suppose to bribe Kira beforehand, he isn’t given substantial advice. Upset by Kira’s dismissive attitude, he attacks him, which ends up with Kira being wounded. The attempt at murder, especially against such a high-ranking official as Kira, within the court is punishable by an order to commit suicide. Asano’s retainers, following the protocol of bushido and general loyalty, attempt to seek vengeance against Kira. They are surprised to find that their cause is actually supported and condoned within the system, even as those supporting individuals cannot publicly express this.
There is an awhile lot of subtext in this story, and it would be wise for one to familiarize themselves with the story of the 47 Ronin. Additionally, the film’s production could also use some context. The intentions of adapting the story was definitely nationalistic, even as the end product might not have shown such a stance (more on this later) and while part one lost an enormous amount of money, the Shochiku company was pressured by the military to distribute part two. This was brought on by Shochiku’s notable lack of national policy films at the time. This seems like a lot of red tape I’m going through without even getting to the meat of the film, but it’s important. While Seika Mayama’s adaptation of the story (which Mizouchi’s films is based on) is fairly revisionist, it was still seen as a suitable source of national pride.
The film doesn’t flow in the convincing manner that the military probably wanted, and one can’t help but think that Mizoguchi might have intentionally signed on to the project to subvert the tale. While this film, because of its length, might be too difficult for a beginner, it is a very accurate representation of Mizoguchi’s stylistic flourishes. The entire film, with the exception of some dull dialogue-driven scenes, seems to be based around elaborate tracking and crane shots. It’s fairly impressive, especially when the film’s set (designed by future filmmaker Kaneto Shindo) were constructed specifically to fit the movements of the camera.
It’s easy to underestimate Mizoguchi’s wizardry here. There’s two or three sequences here in particularly of such great beauty, that it isn’t difficult to divorce them from the film’s context. This feels necessary since the film’s context, the actual narrative that is, is not particularly exciting. Apparently, Mizoguchi cut several dialogue-driven scenes from Mayama’s source because he didn’t feel comfortable working with such expository sequences. I’m not one to criticize a filmmaker for what they left in, but there are several fairly long stretches in this film that revolve around conversations that serve just to forward the plot, which is bizarre enough considering how slowly the story unfolds. It seems that the dialogue necessary to tell such a story mostly just tripped up Mizoguchi and prevented him from making a film conceived entirely out of long tracking shots.
The film was intended to evoke bushido, “the way of the warrior” in the public and thus, remind them of their country’s military that they needed to support. One can’t blame Mizoguchi for wanting to ignore the military’s intentions for the film, but his disinterest doesn’t exactly subvert the theme of loyalty. As is the case, this film is technically dazzling but ideologically, at its best, it’s convoluted. One could argue it’s downright detestable, but that might be going too far. Shochiku had to make this movie or the military would have shut them down. It’s odd, though, because the film itself almost made the company go out of business with all the money it lost. A fascinating film, none the less, that’s a must for any Mizoguchi fan, but not one that should be a priority for anyone trying to familiarize themselves with the director.