Scen., F.: Shozo Makino. Int.: Matsunosuke Onoe, Ichinosho Kataoka, Kiraku Arashi, Kijaku Otani, Ichitaro Kataoka, Tomosaburo Otani, Yoshio Mizutani. Prod.: Nikkatsu (Yokota) 35mm. D.: 42’ a 24 f/s. Bn.
The Chushingura story, or ‘Tale of the loyal 47 ronin’, as it is generally known to Westerners, is one of the most familiar narratives in Japanese literary history. It is based the historical account of a fatal feud dating from the early years of the eighteenth century (the Genroku Era, in Japanese chronology) which had its origin when Kira, a senior official at court, failed properly to instruct the young Lord Asano in his courtly duties. The humiliated Asano drew his sword and attacked Kira. Since to draw a weapon within the court precincts was an act of treason, Asano was sentenced to commit ritual suicide. In response, his dispossessed retainers planned and executed an elaborate vendetta.
Beginning with Kanadehon Chushingura (A Treasury of Loyal Retainers), the adaptation for bunraku puppet theatre first staged in 1748, the story has been retold countless times, inspiring stage plays and prose novels as well as adaptations for film and television. Among the distinguished directors to have filmed the story are Teinosuke Kinugasa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Hiroshi Inagaki and Kon Ichikawa, while the plots of films such as Toshio Matsumoto’s Shura (Pandemonium, 1971) and Hirokazu Koreeda’s Hana yori mo naho (Hana, 2006) function as critical revisions of the canonical narrative.
This film is a compilation of several early film versions of the Chushingura narrative, with the bulk of the footage apparently dating from 1912. The films were directed by Shozo Makino, so-called ‘father of Japanese cinema’. Makino, who died in 1929 after a twenty-year career in cinema, was a pioneer of and specialist in kyugeki (‘old-school film’), as the kabuki-based cinema of the 1910s was known. His collaboration with Matsunosuke Onoe, a kabuki actor turned film star, who features here, lasted until the latter’s death in 1925.
The early Japanese cinema, with its almost exclusive use of long shot and ‘proscenium arch’ framing, created a viewing experience which was very similar to that of the kabuki stage. The similarity was intensified by the presence of a live narrator, the benshi. This version was apparently restored and released with a recorded soundtrack during the late 1930s.