A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1941)

Chojuro Karawasaki in The 47 Ronin
As stately a samurai film as you're ever likely to see, with no action except the initial attack on Lord Kira by Lord Asano and later moment of brief swordplay, The 47 Ronin has a staginess to it that betrays its origin in a play by Seika Mayama. But that staginess is Shakespearean in essence: It's a tragedy, like Hamlet, about the consequence of delaying an action. And like the character Hamlet, the central character of the film, Oishi (Chojuro Kawarasaki), is a man tormented by delay. It's director Kenji Mizoguchi's mastery of pace and tension -- i.e., the pace is slow, but the tension is high -- that kept me riveted to the screen. Admittedly, others may not find it so riveting, and perhaps it's my fascination with unconventional moviemaking (assuming that the conventions have been established by Hollywood) that kept me going. But the opening scene, which consists of a long, slow pan around the courtyard of a Japanese castle, drew me in by a sort of immersive process. We see groups of men kneeling in expectation of something, and then finally a quarrel breaks out: Lord Kira (Kazutoyo Mimasui) berates a man in words that insult Lord Asano (Yoshizaburo Arashi). Suddenly, Asano rises from his kneeling position, draws his sword, and attacks Kira, causing a commotion. Unless you're familiar with the historical story known as the Ako incident in Japanese history, you probably won't have a clue initially to what's going on. But gradually the incident unfolds itself. Asano is ordered to commit seppuku, whereas Kira, who provoked him and survived, goes free. Moreover, Asano's lands are confiscated and his samurai are now masterless -- i.e., ronin. It falls to the ranking member of the Asano household, Kuranosuke Oishi, to lead the ronin in taking revenge on Kira not only for provoking the attack but also to protest the unequal justice that has been dispensed. But Oishi has a dilemma: If a petition for reinstatement of the Asano household is successful, it would rob them of their justification for killing Kira, so any attack on him would have to be well-timed. Eventually, the attack succeeds, but at a high price: the 47 ronin who break into Kira's castle and kill him are honor-bound to follow an edict that they must now all commit seppuku. And so it ends, but not without an interpolated romantic incident that seems to come out of the Hollywood playbook, with however another Shakespearean twist. A young woman (Mieko Takamine) comes, disguised as a man, to where the condemned ronin are awaiting their end. She explains that one of the ronin, Isogai (Kuntaro Kawarazaki), had worked his way into the Kira household as a spy and that they had fallen in love and were about to be married just before the assassination of Kira took place. She wants to know whether Isogai truly loved her or was just using her to work his way into the household. He did love her, of course, and just before he is about to die, she commits seppuku herself. It's a tribute to the tone maintained throughout the film by Mizoguchi's direction of the screenplay by Kenichiro Hara and Yoshikata Yoda that this touch of melodrama feels integral, more Shakespearean than Hollywood.

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