Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Upon watching 141 Ronin

A Japanese tradition for New Year's Day (not sure how far it dates back or exactly how extensive it is) is to watch one of the many versions of the famous Japanese story of the Loyal 47 (aka The 47 Ronin....aka Chushingura). There are countless versions of the story on film and the stage. The picture above depicts a kabuki performance, but if puppet plays are your thing, then there's a 1748 banraku version to satisfy you as well. In Japan, there are numerous made-for-TV versions, which seem to come out every couple of years, often featuring the hottest stars of the day (I believe the last one I heard about starred a SMAP member or two). You'd be hard pressed to find a prominent Japanese actor who hasn't been in one of these film or tv versions. If you are interested in giving the story a whirl, you can read a brief summary here or a summary of the puppet play here. There are several film versions available on DVD in the U.S.: Kenji Mizoguchi's version from 1941 is long, but if you don't mind deliberately paced tracking shots and long shots of loyal samurai at the end of their emotional tether, it will be worth your time. The wartime bushido subtext adds a layer of historical interest to the story. It was originally released in two parts in consequitive years ('41 and '42), notably before the war turned sour for the Imperial forces. Hiroshi Inagaki's version from 1962 is also long (any version of the story will be) but moves a bit faster and is more exciting. To date, though, I haven't come across a good print of it. Another one to consider is Kon Ichikawa's 1994 version which is slower than the Inagaki version, but has some pleasant visuals.

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