Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review – Talking Silents 10: Chushingura: The Truth/Raiden

April 21, 2011

Chushingura: The Truth – Japan, 1928
Raiden – Japan, 1928

Legend has it that for his fiftieth birthday, Shozo Mikino set out to create a masterpiece – no small feat. I suppose everyone who makes films or writes stories has a similar ambition, yet I doubt he talks about it out loud. I can’t imagine Mark Twain sitting with a group of his friends and announcing to them that he going to create the great American novel or George Lucas saying he was going to create a film that would change the way films are made forever (I was going to say Orson Welles but on second thought…), so for Mikino to have been vocal about his wish is something quite unusual. For his endeavor, he chose a tale that has fascinated people in Japan for decades, the events of 1701 that have come to be known as “Chushingura” or “The Treasury of Loyal Retainers.” The event had previously been made into a short film in 1907. In fact, IMDB lists seven films with the title Chushingura from 1907 to 1926. I suppose it could be said that there was no need for a new adaptation of the event in 1928.

I suspect though that Mikino believed there was something about the story that had yet to be told, hence the title of his film – Chushingura: The Truth. It implies that something about this event had been hidden from the public, that there were secrets that still needed to be told. Granted, he could have just liked how the title sounded or looked on the marquee, but in this, I have to give Mikino the benefit of the doubt. After all, he is the father of Japanese cinema, and if he indeed had his sights set on creating a film that would stand the test of time, I’d say he accomplished his goal.

What follows are the generally accepted facts about the events depicted in the film: Lord Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori was charged with receiving a group of envoys from the Imperial Court in Kyoto. He was young and slightly inexperienced, so Lord Kira Kozuke-no suke Yoshinako was given the task of instructing Lord Asano in the customs of the ceremony. On the day of the reception, something went terrible wrong, and Lord Asano attempted to kill Lord Kira. For this, Lord Asano was order to commit seppuku. However, in violation of existing law, Lord Kira was not punished. The ruling Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi eventually confiscated Lord Asano’s land and dismissed the samurai that had served him so faithfully, effectively making them all ronin. Two years later, Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshi led a group of samurai loyal to Lord Asano in an attack on Kira’s compound. Their aim was to capture and kill him.

What is less clear is what actually happened between Lord Asano and Lord Kira. Moreover, why did it take two years for Lord Asano’s samurai to exact their revenge? In Chushingura: The Truth, the answers are revealed, and they are fascinating. Writers Itaro Yahagami and Shotaro Saijo have created a version of these events that is not only believable but also compelling. We witness Lord Asano trying to control his rage and finding it increasingly difficult to do so with each of Lord Kira’s successive insults. We also see the reason for Lord Kira’s animosity towards Lord Asano. Later in the film, we watch as Oishi has to bide his time, and we marvel at the strategy he devises to help him allay the Shogunate’s suspicions. At the same time, the film allows us to see the personal toll that getting revenge takes on Oishi, and I suspect that viewers will both admire and empathize with him as a result.

Unfortunately, the film is incomplete, for some of the film’s final act was lost in a fire. Some of the scenes towards the end of the film are actually from Masahiro Mikino’s film Kanja, which had many of the same actors in it as Chushingura: The Truth. The effect of this is that the film’s climatic battle seems rushed. In addition, the film’s final scene doesn’t end the story. It simply moves its characters to a new location. It could be that there was an alternative ending at one point that is now lost. However, the awkwardness of the film’s closing moments does nothing to take away from the sheer brilliance of all that has preceded it. Chushingura: The Truth seems very much the masterpiece its director intended it to be

The second film on the tenth volume of the Talking Silents series is Shozo Mikino’s final short comedy, Raiden. The film is about a sumo wrestler named Raiden who is one victory away from achieving the status of yokozuna. The only problem is that his family, in particular, his aging mother, doesn’t want him to receive that title, arguing that if he does, he will only accrue the resentment of society. She pleads with him to throw the match, and he reluctantly agrees. It turns out to be much easier said than done, for his opponent is Dr. Yabui Chikuan, who has never wrestled a match in his life and is practically all skin and bones.

Raiden is played by Toichiro Negishi, who looks like he could actually be a sumo wrestler. Dr. Chikuan is played by Shozo Mikino’s son, Masahiro Makino, and he is very funny in the role. Having no experience as a sumo wrestler, Dr. Chikuan tries to copy all of Raiden’s actions. He even tries to prevent Raiden from stepping out of bounds, not realizing that it’s too his advantage not to. The younger Makino had been an actor in his father’s films before he became a director, and from what we see here, he was quite skilled at it. Raiden is a rather funny film with no really serious themes. It simply does what good films should do. It leaves you wanting more. I would expect nothing less from the father of Japanese cinema. (on DVD)

Chushingura: The Truth – 4 and a half stars
Raiden – 3 and a half stars

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