“Chushingura,” the fictionalized story of a real-life revenge plot carried out by 47 ronin (masterless samurai), has been told and retold in every medium from traditional puppet theater to films. There was even a dire 2013 Hollywood version starring Keanu Reeves as a fictional member of the ronin plotters.

Yoshihiro Nakamura, who also made the feudal-era films “The Magnificent Nine” (2016) and “Mumon: The Land of Stealth” (2017), now gives us yet another version of the “Chushingura” story: “The 47 Ronin in Debt.” Based on Hirofumi Yamamoto’s non-fiction book, it is the definition of an “only for Japan” movie — and not only because “Chushingura” is little known in the wider world.

A University of Tokyo professor, Yamamoto unearthed period records for the planning and execution of the plot, which unfolded from 1701 to 1703. In bringing his research to the screen, Nakamura tries to humanize what has become a national myth by weaving in actual salaries, travel expenses and other financial figures, adjusted into present-day yen.

The 47 Ronin in Debt (Kessan! Chushingura)
Run Time 125 mins.
Opens NOV. 22

Another objective is laughs, as when humble clan accountant Yato Chosuke (Takashi Okamura) irritably confronts Oishi Kuranosuke (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the clan’s powerful chief retainer and plot leader, with the vast difference in their annual compensation. Objective, in this case, achieved.

But similar to many recent films about the non-violent side of samurai life featuring heroes who are everything from cooks to astronomers, “The 47 Ronin in Debt” is a shout-out to the organization men in the audience who feel tied by blood, affection and even job description to their feudal-era counterparts. For this outlander, however, the gags about moolah quickly began to wear and the film felt like a nerdy in-joke for “Chushingura” otaku (hard-core fans).

But the film also goes into instructive detail on the plot, beginning with the incident that started it all: the attack by Lord Asano of the Ako clan on Kira Yoshinaka, a shogunate protocol officer. Though Kira escapes with his life, Asano is ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) since he drew his sword inside Edo Castle — an offense punishable by death.

To avenge their lord, Asano’s retainers — now stripped of their samurai status and reduced to ronin — vow to kill Kira. But their enemy is well protected and to succeed they need smart strategy, not brute force. It will also take money the clan no longer has, as Yato reminds Oishi more than once, but Oishi and other high-ranking samurai are thick-headedly slow to get the message.

The large cast is heavily seeded with big-name male talents, with some, like Sadao Abe as Asano, making only cameo appearances. But the few women in the cast, including Satomi Ishihara as a well-off concubine who contributes to the cause and Yuko Takeuchi as Asano’s steely-willed widow, make an outsized impression, partly because their characters are more clear-eyed about the enterprise than the revenge-besotted ronin.

Nakamura might have made a more interesting movie if he dropped the money angle and concentrated on them. Of course, an “Onna Chushingura” (“Women’s Chushingura”) has already been done, several times. When it comes to Japan’s best-known samurai story there is nothing new under the sun — or rather yen sign.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.