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A few quick historical notes: In the spring of 1701, the clan leader Asano Takuminokami was receiving needed instruction in court etiquette at the emperor's castle in Edo (now Tokyo). This mentoring came at the hands of a high-ranking, and unfortunately quite arrogant, shogunate official named Kira Kozukenosuke, whose incessant insults ultimately provoked Asano into a physical attack. Though Kira's resultant injury was minor, commission of the personal assault on palace grounds warranted an order from on high for Asano's ritual suicide.
Asano's lands and holdings were thereafter forfeited to the government, and his retinue of 300-plus samurai declared masterless. Asano's chief lieutenant, Oishi Kuranosuke, ostensibly complied with these decrees, but covertly recruited the most loyal of the disbanded clan to avenge their master. In December 1702, Oishi led 46 warriors in a successful raid on Kira's fortified homestead. The ronin killed their intended target, and then quietly surrendered to the fate at the hands of the authorities that they knew would surely follow.
Ichikawa, understandably, treats the audience's familiarity with these circumstances as a given, and the narrative picks up in the fall of 1702, where Oishi (Ken Takakura) has obtained the blueprints of the targeted mansions. The subsequent flashbacks are purposefully vague in describing the fateful encounter between Kira (Ko Nishimura) and Asano. The "news blackout" regarding the incident, as well as Kira's continued safety and the requisite surveillance of the Asano ronin, have been entrusted by the Shogunate to Irobe Matsuhiro (Kiichi Nakai), the first officer of a large rival clan.
Unlike other renditions of the story, The 47 Ronin spends little time focusing on the individual samurai pledged to avenge Asano--none beyond Oishi are limned any more than sketchily. Rather, in often numbing detail, Ichikawa's primarily concerned with the blow-by-blow as Oishi contrives and deliberately implements his master plan, and fends off the prying insinuations of Irobe. The film therefore gives a lot to Takakura, "Japan's Eastwood," to shoulder with his performance, and he's very much up to the task. From Oishi's single-mindedness beyond reason in the pursuit of vengeance, to his guilt at putting his family in harm's way, to his shame over the consequences of his dalliance with a brushmaker's flighty young daughter (Rie Miyazawa), the actor delivers empathetic, compelling work. Nakai is also fine in the only other role of any particular heft, as the opposing chess master whose bids to stay a step ahead of Oishi ultimately prove futile.
AnimEigo provided a cleanly mastered presentation in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, and the multi-color-coded subtitles utilized when multiple characters are onscreen prove particularly helpful given the film's fact-heavy scenario. The highlights of the extras package come in the form of AnimEigo's characteristically thorough and helpful program notes regarding the production, the basis and breadth of the 47 Ronin legend, and the period culture captured on-screen. Rounding out the presentation is a still gallery, as well as the theatrical trailers for the film and Ichikawa's Dora-heita (2000).
For more information about 49 Ronin, visit AnimEigo. To order 49 Ronin, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jay S. Steinberg