Kunio Watanabe’s 1958 costume drama, also known as “Chusingura,” is an opulent but enervated retelling of the well-known story of loyalty and revenge. The eponymous figures are the one-time samurai of Lord Asano, who was forced to commit seppuku following his sword-swinging assault on the corrupt and insulting Lord Kira. The 47 men, reduced in rank from samurai to ronin, peacefully agree to leave Lord Asano’s estate. However, Lord Asano’s chief retainer, Oishi, clearly does not believe in forgiving and forgetting, and after two years an elaborate attack on Lord Kira’s estate brings fatal results to all involved parties.
The film is visually stunning, with richly detailed costumes and art direction that beautifully evoke the privileged world of the 18th century Japanese aristocracy. But the film is sorely lacking in humanity, to the point that all of the film’s characters are little more than half-dimensional figures cloaked in elaborate kimonos. Indeed, the film has a heavy quantity of characters, but none of them possess any degree of personality – it is very easy to get confused on who’s who in the overstuffed cast on non-entity figures.
Perhaps Watanabe intentionally sought to go in the opposite direction of Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 feature “The 47 Ronin,” which covered the same territory with more emphasis on cerebral passion than showmanship. Mizoguchi’s film was considered a flop in its time, but the passage of years elevated it to classic status. Watanabe’s film, while lovely to look at, is no one’s idea of a classic.