The 47 Ronin (1941) A Movie Review

This film was made in Japan during World War II and was a form of propaganda meant to showcase loyalty, courage and the martial spirit of the Japanese people.  It is a true story that occurred in the early 1700’s during the shogunate of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.  It was a time when a formerly prosperous people were slipping into poverty through governmental mismanagement.  And cultural and social norms were unravelling.  The samurai class was finding itself relegated to a diminished role in the feudal system of the Edo period.  But the samurai code still tied them to their patron, the daimyo or lord.

Plot

This story is about a case of revenge.  Lord Asano was a daimyo who was insulted by one of the shogun’s officials named Lord Kira.  Flying into a rage Asano attacked Kira with a knife inside the shogun’s residence which was a capitol offense.  The shogun decreed that Asano would have to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) and his lands would be confiscated.  No penalty was decreed against Kira for his insults.

The leader of Lord Asano’s samurai, Ōishi Yoshio, decided that he would organize all the willing samurai under him to revenge their lord against Kira.  He recruited forty-six other samurai including his own fifteen-year-old son and then waited for over a year until Lord Kira’s suspicions were allayed.  To this end Ōishi patronized brothels and became a disgrace, exhibiting public drunkenness until Kira’s spies became convinced that he was a dissolute man.  Ōishi even divorced his wife.  But it is thought he did this to protect his wife and remaining children from retribution by the authorities.

Then when all was prepared Ōishi led his men against Kira’s castle and using swords and bows they stormed both gates of the castle and killed Kira’s men and rushed his private rooms.  Only his wife and children were found.  But when they checked Kira’s bed, they found it was still warm.  So, they ransacked his rooms until they found the entrance to a hidden courtyard where Kira and a few guards were hidden.  They overpowered the guards.  Then Ōishi respectfully offered Kira the chance to commit seppuku but the man was too terrified even to answer.  Kira’s head was cut off and ceremoniously washed and prepared and taken to Lord Asano’s grave where it was bestowed with the appropriate prayers.  Afterward Ōishi and his men gave themselves up to the shogun’s authorities.  Although the shogun had forbidden revenge against Kira, he decided that because the revenge was so popular among the populace, the ronin would not be treated as criminals but instead allowed to commit seppuku.  And so, about a year after the attack the ronin each committed ritual suicide and were given honored burial next to the grave of Lord Asano.

Discussion

This is a very strange movie for Americans to sit through.  First off, it’s almost four hours long.  Four hours of subtitles is hard to endure no matter how good the movie is.  Secondly, the oddness of the action and manners of both the era being portrayed and Japanese cinema in general presents a considerable barrier to an American audience immersing itself in the story.  And thirdly, the majority of the movie is static and is portrayed by conversations between the characters.  Even the storming of the castle occurs off screen and is read to the audience by one of the characters, Lord Asano’s widow.

I found the three problems I mention above, as too extreme to allow the movie to be thought of as entertainment.  It’s more of an historical experience.  I would not recommend this to anyone who isn’t interested in Japanese history and culture for their own sake.

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 3 – Tokyo Story

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 1 – Late Spring

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 2 – Early Summer

 

In the third installment of the Noriko trilogy, Tokyo Story (1953), Setsuko Hara, once again, plays a young Japanese woman named Noriko.  But in this story Noriko is less of a central player.  In this tale the main action involves the visit of an elderly mother and father to visit their children living in Tokyo.  Shūkichi and Tomi Hirayama have two sons and daughters and they have a daughter-in-law, Noriko, from their son who was killed in the war.  The youngest daughter lives at home with them in the country.  Their eldest son, Kōichi is a pediatrician in Tokyo and has two sons.  The eldest daughter Shige is married and runs a hairdressing salon there too. Neither Koichi or Shige is anxious for the parents to stay with them.  After tossing them back and forth for several days they split the cost for the two elderly people to stay at a resort spa.  But the wild nightlife disturbs the sleep of Shūkichi and Tomi so they are at last forced to accept Noriko’s hospitality.  She is very gracious and generous with her time and her meager resources.  Both Shūkichi and Tomi express how grateful they are for her generosity and her mother-in-law especially tells her that she is sad that Noriko has not remarried and restarted her life.

Shortly after Shūkichi and Tomi return home to the country Tomi becomes critically ill and the family assembles at her bedside.  When she dies the children attend the funeral but all of them leave hurriedly for home except Noriko.  She remains with Shūkichi for several days during the bereavement.  The youngest daughter, Kyōko complains bitterly to Noriko about the selfishness of her brothers and sister.  But Noriko defends them saying that grown children have their own lives and it is inevitable that they will drift apart from their parents.

On the day that Noriko must return to Tokyo for work Shūkichi speaks to her about his happiness at the treatment she showed to her parents-in-law whereas his own children showed such callous disregard for their parents.  He gives Noriko a pocket watch that belonged to Tomi.  Noriko humbly claims that she showed no such generosity but was actually very selfish.  Then Shūkichi renews his entreaties for her to remarry.  Finally, after repeated inquiries she admits that she has been very lonely and she weeps.  Afterwards we see Noriko deep in thought on the train ride home.

Despite the very sympathetic portrayal of Noriko and the very unflattering picture that we have of Koichi, Shige and their families, we are forced to somewhat believe the opinion that it is inevitable that grown children become so absorbed by their own lives that they appear selfish to their parents.  But admitting that much we are charmed by the respect, affection and generosity that Noriko lavishes on her mother- and father-in-law.  Ozu must be making the point that the modern world was forcing the abandonment of the old culture that lavished respect on elders as a primary virtue and replacing it with the Western cult of commercial success.

It is a well-made film.  The parents and Noriko are sensitively portrayed and even the slightly caricatured siblings are well acted.  Many of the details of the story provide human interest.  One example is the doctor’s sons displaying childish anger at their father reneging on a promised outing on account of a sick patient needing attention.  Their peevishness in the face of an unavoidable disappointment rings true to anyone who has raised a family.

I’ll include a conclusion for the whole series here.  Ozu has shown how the changing world the Japanese found themselves in impacted the roles and behavior of each family member but most especially the younger women whose lives were shunted away from the traditional template that girls typically followed on their way to becoming wives and mothers.  The various versions of “Noriko” act as the barometer to indicate to her family that something very different is happening in their world.

These stories have appeal far beyond the Japanese public they were made for.  The roles of women have radically shifted even again in our most recent times.  And exploring the fallout from this change and noting the value that the traditional roles that women play in family life possess are worthwhile exercises.  I recommend the Noriko trilogy for anyone who sees the value in the stories I have described in these reviews.

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 2 – Early Summer

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 1 – Late Spring

 

In this second installment of the series, “Early Summer” (1951) the Noriko character has several differences from her situation in the first movie.  Here she lives in a house with both her parents and also her older brother’s family.  The older brother is a doctor and has a wife and two young sons.  Noriko has a clerical position in a commercial firm.  She has reached the age where her parents are starting to worry that she has not yet married.  Her employer hears of this and suggests that a friend of his would make a very suitable husband.  The fact that he is about fifteen years older than Noriko and comes from a higher social stratum than Noriko doesn’t strike her family as a problem.  Noriko’s brother and parents apply continuous pressure to get her to agree to the arranged marriage.  Noriko talks to her married and single friends and confides that she has great reservations about this match.

One of her neighbors is a doctor, a friend of her brother’s named Kenkichi Yabe.  Kenkichi is moving to a remote rural area to assume a government medical position.  He is a widower with a child and Noriko has always felt close to him.  Kenkichi’s mother, Tami is also a good friend of Noriko’s.  While she is preparing for the move Tami mentions to Noriko that she had always hoped that her son would have married Noriko.  Impulsively Noriko agrees to marry the widower.  The mother is overjoyed and tells her son who also seems pleased with the idea of marrying Noriko and have her share his new life in the country.

But Noriko’s parents and other family are shocked and distressed.  They feel that Noriko is throwing away a privileged and desirable marriage to raise another woman’s child and live in a less affluent and less interesting environment.  They try to change her mind.  But she is adamant and they eventually become reconciled to her decision.  When she speaks to her family about her sudden choice, she reveals that the idea of marriage wasn’t the thing she was afraid of but rather she feared being in an environment without friendship.  When Tami unexpectedly mentions her wish for Noriko to be her daughter-in-law it provided Noriko with an avenue to combine marriage with a familiar and friendly environment.  She would start out with a mother-in-law who was already on her side.

The movie ends with the family preparing for the various changes that are occurring.  Noriko is preparing for her marriage and move to the country.  And her parents are moving in with an uncle who has a large house that they will stay in from then on.  In this way the son will have more room for his growing family.  All of these things are seen as the natural progression for the time in each of their lives.

“Early Summer” is not fraught with the tragedy of loneliness found in “Late Spring.”  But it plays up the anxieties that young women are prey to as their families barter their lives in the old practice of arranged marriages.  What Noriko wisely and luckily chooses is to combine her natural role as a bride and a mother with the opportunity of holding onto the familiar and proven relationship with the Yabes.  Her chances of living a happy, if less affluent, life are improved immensely.  This is seen as a consequence of a woman’s changing role in post-war Japan.

Early summer is a pleasant film with some engaging characters and much human interest.  I find “Late Spring” a more compelling movie but “Early Summer” makes an interesting variation on the theme of young women in post-war Japan.  I think it is well worth the time to view after the first installment has been watched.

Yasujirō Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy – A Movie Review – Part 1 – Late Spring

Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu has been rated one of the best film directors of all time by his peers.  Toward the end of his career, he produced three films (Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953)) that are variations on a theme.  The three stories have as their center a young woman named Noriko.  Actually, the three films are about three different Norikos.  But they are all played by the same actress, Setsuko Hara and all three of the women are each living through the contradictions and confusion of a young woman’s life in post-war Japan.

In “Late Spring” the Noriko character is in her late twenties, the only child of Professor Shukichi Somiya.  Her mother had died sometime earlier and Noriko has been keeping her father’s house.  But her father and her aunt are concerned that she won’t get married and will end up alone once her father dies.  But Noriko feels that she would be happiest caring for her father and rejects the idea of marriage.  But the Professor decides to take away her rationale by claiming he is remarrying.  Noriko is outraged by this development considering the idea almost obscene.  But once she adjusts to this situation she relents and meets the suitor her aunt has picked out for her.  And maybe unsurprisingly she finds herself interested in this man.  The aunt takes this interest as acceptance and sets up the wedding.

Now father and daughter travel for one last holiday together to the cultural center Kyoto.  While there Noriko begs her father to allow her to stay with him regardless of whether he remarries.  She declares that she believes she will be happiest remaining in his home.  But her father corrects her.  He explains that human life has its own structure that cannot be profitably ignored.  He indicates that her marriage is the next step in her life and that his part in her life must end for that to proceed.  And she accepts his argument and agrees to marriage.  But it is clear that she feels great sorrow at leaving him.  The marriage is celebrated and Professor Shukichi returns home and there we end the movie with him grief stricken by the loss of his dear daughter.

Americans will find many conventions in Japanese manners strange especially those of the women which seem quite affected.  And one scene that takes place in a Noh theater with the odd appearance of the actors and the weird chanting seemed absolutely bizarre to me.

But the deep affection of the father and daughter shine through the movie and make the double-sided heartbreak of their separation real for us.  For the Japanese women of that generation the disruptions of traditional life caused by the American Occupation, the economic hardships of their defeat in war and the introduction of western customs and practices like divorce and women in the workplace made their place in society confusing and frightening and losing the stability and familiarity of the family setting was disorienting.  Ozu showcases these new realities throughout the movie in the persons of the supporting cast but Noriko and her father are the center around which these aunts, cousins and friends revolve.

Although Tokyo Story is considered the strongest of the three movies in this series, I confess that I like “Late Spring” best.  I guess I’m a rank sentimentalist.  I find myself approving the old man’s wisdom in explaining to his daughter the necessities that time and biological life place especially on young women.  And at the same time, I can submerge myself in the awful grief that a father could feel at the loss of a daughter, a daughter that has become his only companion in old age.  This paradox is at the heart of what it means to be a mortal.  We each have only a short window to wear the various parts that we can play.  Son or daughter, brother or sister, grandson or granddaughter, husband or wife, father or mother, aunt or uncle, grandfather or grandmother.  And if we hesitate too long the chance is lost.  And even if we are willing to play our part fate can deny us our chance.

I don’t know if this is one of the “greatest films of all time” but I think it’s a thoughtful and moving portrayal of a father and a daughter.  If that might interest you and you are willing to read subtitles you might enjoy this film.  I recommend it.

Dersu Uzala (1975) – A Movie Review

Akira Kurosawa is probably best known in the West for his films that are set in Japan’s Sengoku period like “Seven Samurai” (1954), Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985).  But one picture of his that I recently watched is set in turn of the century (19th to 20th century) tsarist Russia and is based on the memoir of a Russian explorer, Vladimir Arsenyev, concerning his travels in the Ussuri basin in the Russian Far East. Dersu Uzala was a Nanai hunter.  The Nanai are a tribal people who live in the area.  Dersu guided Arsenyev’s surveying crew from 1902 to 1907.  His knowledge of the climatic and topographic dangers of this wild area several times saved Arsenyev and his men from death.

The story very simply and directly demonstrates the friendship and respect that Arsenyev and Dersu develop and when the elderly Dersu is no longer able to survive as a hunter Arsenyev takes the old Nanai home with him to Khabarovsk.  But although Arsenyev’s wife and son adopt the strange tribesman as family, we see the stifling restrictions of the town wither the old man’s spirit and he declares that he must go back to the forest.  His death and the cause of it completes this story about simplicity and modernity colliding and the humanity that exists on both sides of that intersection.

One of the interesting things about Dersu’s world view is his animism.  He sees “people” in almost everything; the sun, the moon, water, fire, the wind, the forest.  And he feels that the forest spirit watches him and punishes actions that are forbidden such as his killing of a Siberian tiger that threatened the expedition at one point.  And we see his empathy for his fellow man in the practices that he follows.  For instance, Dersu leaves salt, matches and firewood at the shelters that he leaves in the woods for the next stranger who will come along.

The movie was filmed in the Russian Far East.  The Arctic ice flows and limitless taiga forest is an impressive if forbidding back drop for the story.  Mainly it is a story of men on an adventure in the wild.  Although the film is in Russian with subtitles, it’s a pretty good story.  I recommend it.

Ransom – A Movie Review and Comparison – Part 3

Any of you who have followed the guest contributors here may know that The Fatman is a more learned student of the cinema than I am.  When he saw my Ransom reviews, he alerted me to a ransom-type movie by the acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa called “High and Low”.  Now, Kurosawa is best known to American audiences from his homage to the American Western called “The Seven Samurai.  And the American Western’s homage to him is the movie “The Magnificent Seven.”

So anyway, I decided to give it a spin.  “High and Low” is not a direct retelling of the Ransom story in fact it is based on an American crime novel called “King’s Ransom” written by Evan Hunter under the pen name Ed McBain.  But I think it still fits under the umbrella of the Ransom comparison.

Kingo Gondo (played by Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune) is the CEO of a large shoe manufacturing company with the very original name of National Shoes.  He is extremely wealthy but came up through the ranks from humble beginnings.  He lives in a beautiful home on a prominent hill overlooking the city.  He has a wife, Reiko and young son, Jun and they share the home with his chauffer Yutaka Sada and his son, Shinichi, who is Jun’s friend.

Gondo is being pressured by the Board of Directors to back their play to oust the founder of the company and start making stylish but poorly-made shoes at a high profit.  Gondo disagrees saying the answer is to upgrade the style of the current well-built shoes and thereby maintain the brand and expand the market.  The Board threatens to oust him instead.  In discussions between Gondo and his assistant we learn that Gondo has anticipated this hostile takeover and has collected enough loan money to take over the company himself.  He has a check for fifty million yen that his assistant will deliver by train that night to lock down the stock he needs for the takeover.  The loans will basically mortgage everything he owns but he knows he’ll be able to pay them off once he has control of the company.

During these discussions we see Jun and Shinichi dressed as cowboys chasing each other around with cap guns.  And now that Jun has won the game as sheriff, he trades costumes with Shinichi and assumes the role of outlaw.  Gondo gives the check to the assistant and tells him which train to take.  But before the assistant leaves a call comes in from someone claiming to have kidnapped Jun.  The kidnapper says the ransom will be thirty million yen.  Gondo tells the kidnapper he will pay the ransom.  Now Gondo tells his assistant to cancel his train ride because Gondo will need that money for the ransom.  Almost immediately Jun walks back in the room and Gondo assumes the call was a hoax.  But when Jun asks everyone where Shinichi has gone the adults realize that the kidnapper mistook the boy wearing Jun’s costume for Jun and kidnapped Shinichi by accident.  Sada is now understandably worried about his son but Gondo tells him that the kidnapper will release Shinichi when he realizes the boy is not from a rich family.  But the kidnapper calls back and says he will demand the ransom for Shinichi instead and he will kill the boy if the money is not surrendered.  Gondo refuses and hangs up.  Now the police are called in.

The police show up and go through the same phone tapping routine we’ve seen in the other two movies and analyze the kidnapper’s demands and mindset.  They try to convince Gondo that this particular kidnapper is extremely angry and seems to have a grudge against Gondo or at least against the rich.  They ask him if he will consider paying the ransom but he explains that he must go forward with the takeover or he will be out of a job and ruined financially.  At this point Sada and Reiko separately beg Gondo to relent and pay the ransom.  Gondo refuses.  The police ask that at least he tell the kidnapper that he will pay the money in hopes that they can catch the kidnapper during the ransom exchange.  Gondo agrees to this.  He gets the instructions from the kidnapper and after seeing Sada break down in despair Gondo relents and agrees to pay the ransom.

There is an intricate arrangement with bags of cash that will fit through a narrow bathroom window on the train once Gondo sees Shinichi standing with his captor adjacent to the tracks.  The money is payed and Shinichi is freed.  Gondo loses his house and all his possessions to his creditors.

The rest of the movie is a police procedural about trying to find the kidnappers and get Gondo’s money back.  Small clues gathered from the kidnapper’s phone conversations and the somewhat vague information provided by Shinichi combine to allow the police to hunt down the gang.  The final part of the movie involves some heroin addicts who were part of the gang and we get some scenes of the seedy world that these people inhabit.  Finally, the kidnapper is caught and because of the murder of his accomplices he is given a death sentence.

We see Gondo get his money back but it is too late to restore his old life.  He takes a job with a smaller shoe company and he actually enjoys the work more because of his greater creative control there.

In the last scene the murderer asks Gondo to come to the prison to talk.  He explains why he picked Gondo.  From his tenement below the hill he dwelt on Gondo’s affluence and the anger this engendered drove him to his crimes.  He claims not to be afraid of his death but by the end of the conversation he breaks out in hysterics and is dragged away and the movie ends.

This movie is sort of a hybrid.  The story really is a police procedural.  The crime allows for the police to solve the puzzle of finding the criminal and getting justice for Gondo.  But the predicament of Gondo is a very Japanese story.  The honor and the prestige of the “great man” is a theme that interests Kurosawa and specifically he is examining how the modern capitalist model has removed the human element from the equation.  Gondo was a poor man who became rich and Sada is a poor man who is entirely at Gondo’s mercy for his son’s life.  Basically, we are watching a struggle for Gondo’s soul.

Japanese cinema is in some ways hard for Americans to enter.  In addition to the language barrier and the need to read the subtitles, facial expressions and even mannerisms are decidedly different.  I like the movie and thought it was well done.  Whether anyone who hasn’t seen Japanese films would enjoy it is an open question.  I recommend it.