It’s long been a rather cynical maxim of the Japanese movie business that, when all else fails, you can always put butts on seats with a revival of “Chushingura.”
This venerable property, starting with dramatizations soon after the incident and continuing through countless iterations on stage, screen and television, is based on a true incident. In 1701, Lord Asano Naganori of the Ako domain was ordered to receive etiquette instruction from the shogun’s protocol officer, Kira Yoshinaka, for an upcoming reception of Imperial envoys. Enraged by a perceived insult from Kira, Asano drew his sword inside the shogunal palace — an offense that resulted in his death by seppuku (ritual suicide by the sword) and the dissolution of his domain.
All his retainers lost their posts and, two years later, under the leadership of Yoshio Oishi (often referred to by his title, Oishi Kuranosuke), 47 of these ronin (masterless samurai) staged an attack on Kira’s mansion in Edo (old Tokyo), beheaded Kira and, having accomplished their revenge, gave themselves up to the authorities and committed seppuku themselves.
Their self-sacrificing actions to restore their lord’s honor have long been regarded as the height of samurai valor and the 47 ronin were held up as shining examples by Japan’s militarists before and during World War II. “Chushingura” was consequently banned by Occupation authorities, anxious to expunge feudalism from the national culture and mindset.
But in Shigemichi Sugita’s slow-paced and didactic, if well-acted, “Saigo no Chushingura (The Last Ronin),” the old “Chushingura” spirit is still alive and well. Far from being revisionist, the film is unapologetically traditionalist in sentiment; with some tweaking, it would have made an excellent home-front film, circa 1940, since it extols the value of self-sacrifice and gaman (endurance) for a higher, feudalistic good, even in nonviolent anonymity.
Based on a novel by Shoichiro Ikemiya, the film focuses on two Ako samurai who survive. One, Terasaka Kichiemon (Koichi Sato), is ordered by Oishi to report to the families of the attackers on their brave deeds, since he witnessed so much of the battle. The other, Senoo Magozaemon (Koji Yakusho), apparently absconded just before the attack and went into ignominious hiding, abandoning his samurai status for that of a merchant — that is, the lowest of the low.
The story proper begins when Kichiemon, after 16 years of traipsing about the country and finally meeting his last family member, happens upon Magozaemon — once his closest friend. But when he announces himself, Magozaemon responds with not an embrace but a sword. Has his old, disgraced comrade gone mad?
Not really — Magozaemon has instead spent the past decade and a half raising Yu (Narumi Yasuda), Oishi’s natural daughter, from infancy to young blooming womanhood, while scratching out a bare living. Now, however, Yu has a chance to marry into a rich merchant family — and Magozaemon is determined to give her a happily-ever-after sendoff, even if it costs him his life.
Yakusho does his usual excellent job in humanizing Magozaemon, whom many another actor would have played as a pillar of samurai virtue — and about as interesting as a stick. He also thoroughly embodies an ethos that may have its admirable side, but has also been used as a cover for actions that have had, shall we say, negative social consequences.
If Magozaemon sacrifices his status and future to fulfill his lord’s rather selfish request, so have the many corporate and bureaucratic types here who have risked disgrace and even jail time to commit or cover up crimes out of personal loyalty to a morally suspect superior or collective, rather than obey abstract laws.
Not that Magozaemon is a crook, but his method of celebrating Yu’s wedding, which I will not reveal, is rather more suited to 1701 — or 1941 — than today.
As Yu, newcomer Yasuda glows with youth, beauty and purity, while smilingly accepting her role as a dutiful daughter and clan symbol, even though Yu’s acquaintance with Oishi and his Ako domain is, save through the agency of Magozaemon, nil.
That said, the sight of dozens of former Ako retainers coming out of the woodwork to tearfully pay Yu respects on the eve of her nuptials makes for great theater, though one has to wonder where they were when the fabled 47 carried out their gallant attack. Did they, like Dick Cheney during the Vietnam War, have other priorities?
On second thought, “The Last Ronin” would have probably never made it past wartime censors, since it finally glorifies folks who, out of duty or convenience, escaped the ultimate sacrifice. But it certainly speaks to today, when loyal corporate warriors can still end up in the pen — though they no longer fall on their swords.