A Film a Week - The 47 Ronin in Debt / Kessan! Chushingura

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

The legend of the 47 ronin executing their revenge on the man responsible for the suicide of their master has been told and re-told a myriad of times in Japan in various art forms so it became a genre with its own name: Chushingura. There were several movie versions, too, from the 1941 classic directed by Kenji Mizoguchi to the atrocious 2013 Hollywood version starring Keanu Reeves. The newest version, ”The 47 Ronin in Debt” directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura that premiered at the last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival and is now screened at Toronto Japanese Film Festival, at least offers a new angle to the whole story – the financial one.

The legend tells us that the feudal lord Naganori Asano of Ako had attacked his rival and court official Yoshinaka Kira for the reasons believed to be corruption. Kira survived, but for the crime of drawing out his sword in the Edo castle, Asano is forced to commit seppuku, the ritual suicide, which left his samurai fighters, 47 of them, relegated to the status of ronin. They swore to revenge their master by killing Kira and did it, but were also forced to commit seppuku for the crime of murder. The story that originated in the 18th century became popular later on, especially in the Meiji times, becoming a role model for the romantic visions of the samurai code of honour.

The thing Nakamura reminds us of from the very beginning of the film is the simple fact that the war, the rebellion and the revenge have their own very hard financial costs. The whole script, based on prof. Hirofumi Yamamoto’s non-fiction academic book in which he unearthed the early 18th century data about the financial aspects and the corruption of the later-days Shogunate period, jumps from the planning and execution of the revenge of the ronin fighters and the verbal encounters between their leader Kuranosuke Oishi (the stage actor Shinchi Tsutsumi) and the Asano clan’s chief accountant Chosuke Yato (Takashi Okamura) about the assets needed and those available for the plan. As the time stretches, the clan members and the fighters get more and more in debt…

It is the running gag that stands in the centre of the film. The joke itself is not bad at all, especially when followed by all the costs of the action listed and converted into modern-day yens, but it is not enough to propel the film for its tiresome runtime of over 2 hours. Other than that, we see the action planning and execution that, especially when followed by 20th century music varying from the main funky theme to rock n’ roll and electronic dance music, and the cheeky set design, seems like something lifted from Guy Ritchie’s gangster comedies and Steven Söderbergh’s heist thrillers appropriated for the period piece Japan flick.

Nakamura, best known for his 2016 historical comedy “The Magnificent Nine” not too dissimilar to “The 47 Ronin in Debt”, relies heavily on editing, always rhythmically in sync with the background music, to maintain the dynamism of the film, but that simple trick cannot mask the general talkiness and the predominant confusion in the terms of storytelling. Another striking similarly between the two titles is the cast composed of powerhouse actors, but their individual efforts in “The 47 Ronin in Debt” do not amount to a better film.

In the end it is a film that could profit from another hand on the screenplay and some “doctoring” to purge the excess material and convert an interesting idea into a coherent film. The way it is, it will certainly find its audiences among the “otakus” of the original legend, but not much outside that pool.

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