Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Screenplay: Kōji Takada
Starring: Nakamura Kinnosuke (as Yorozuya Kinnosuke), Sonny Chiba, Masaomi Kondo, Toshirō Mifune, Kyōko Enami, Tsunehiko Watase, Shinsuke Mikimoto, Shinsuke Ashida, Jun Fujimaki
Country: Japan
Running Time: 159 min
Year: 1978
BBFC Certificate: 15

After the success of The Yagyū Conspiracy (a.k.a. Akō-jō danzetsu or Shogun’s Samurai), Toei asked director Kinji Fukasaku to rush into another samurai property with the same two leads – Yorozuya Kinnosuke (a.k.a. Nakamura Kinnosuke) and Sonny Chiba, handing him the classic ‘47 Ronin’ (or ‘Chūshingura’) story as a basis.

The tale of the 47 Ronin, which was based on actual events that took place in Japan in the early 1700s (or rather the Edo period), has been adapted into many plays, books, TV series and films over the centuries that followed. Fukasaku thought he could add his own spin to the formula though, so agreed to helm the film.

Named The Fall of Ako Castle, Fukasaku’s adaptation of the 47 Ronin only got half the box office of The Yagyū Conspiracy and even fewer Japan Academy Prize nominations (Ako Castle only got one for cinematography, whereas The Yagyū Conspiracy got five). However, among the mountain of 47 Ronin films, Ako Castle is still considered one of the stronger examples.

Eureka are now releasing the film on Blu-ray as part of their illustrious Masters of Cinema series. Being a great lover of chanbara/jidaigeki/samurai films, as well as the work of Fukasaku, I snapped up the chance to review the film and my thoughts follow.

In case you’ve not seen any other 47 Ronin adaptations before (or have only seen some of the ‘looser’ versions, such as Carl Rinsch’s poorly received, fantastical 2013 film, 47 Ronin), the story roughly goes as follows.

During the time of the Tokugawa shogunate, Lord Tsunayoshi deposed dozens of samurai lords, leaving them stripped of their wealth and status. These samurai, bound by their codes of honour, largely submitted to their lord’s despotic decree.

Amidst this backdrop of humiliation, a ceremony takes place, where the Imperial Sword, a symbol of power and honour, is presented to Lord Tsunayoshi.

The deposed samurai lords dutifully attend this humiliating spectacle. However, the seeds of rebellion are sown when Kira (Nobuo Kaneko), a court official, continues to make snide comments towards Asano (Teruhiko Saigô), one of the stripped samurai. Unable to contain his fury, Asano attacks Kira, attempting to kill him but, ultimately, only wounds him.

As punishment for his actions, Asano is sentenced to seppuku, the ritualistic suicide reserved for those who have gravely offended the shogunate. His lands and property are seized, and the Asano name, once a symbol of pride and heritage, is erased from the annals of history.

Though there is word that Kira provoked Asano, the authorities let the official off lightly, merely pushing the ageing man into retirement. This one-sided verdict infuriates Asano’s retainers (i.e. samurai). Unwilling to accept the unjust fate of their lord, they vow to return to Edo, the shogunate’s capital, and exact revenge upon Kira.

Whilst most of the men wish to act straight away, their senior, Ōishi Kuranosuke (Kinnosuke) holds them back, wanting to get revenge ‘properly’, biding time until he can confirm what is to come of their former master’s estate.

They end up waiting a whole 18 months before carrying out their plot, leaving the masterless samurai to live in disgrace and often poverty for a considerable period of time.

It’s this latter point that Fukasaku seems most interested in, revelling in exploring the stories in the periphery of the well-trodden core narrative. He looks at how the retainers’ lives were shattered by the dissolution of their fiefdom, as well as how Ōishi’s long, slow approach to revenge also caused problems among the ranks.

As mentioned earlier, Fukasaku was keen to subvert the legendary story and samurai genre. However, Kinnosuke was such a big name at Toei that he had a lot of sway over the films he made and he had his own opinions on how the film should turn out. With Fukasaku more interested in characters other than Oishi, Kinnosuke wasn’t happy with the director’s approach, so reportedly the pair often clashed. This meant Fukasaku wasn’t allowed to break the mould quite as drastically as he’d liked, though there are some of his distinctive flourishes here and there.

Fukusaku was famous for making more ‘realistic’ Yakuza films, based on true accounts and avoiding the glorification of their actions more prevalent in earlier Yakuza dramas. In Ako Castle, he brings some of that approach to the table (including documentary-like voiceover inserts detailing the facts), though the story takes some creative licence here and there.

Though, for the most part retaining the classic style of carefully composed, largely static cinematography seen in most jidaigeki, Fukusaku adds plenty of movement in the action scenes. These aren’t as wildly shot in a handheld fashion as his Yakuza battles but they provide fitting explosions of energy and his preference for crowded frames comes to the fore too. The great Yoshio Miyajima (who shot Kwaidan and Harakiri) was one of the film’s two cinematographers and his influence can certainly be seen in its visual style.

With Fukasaku’s detailed exploration of the repercussions of the samurai losing their master, the bloody revenge enacted in the film’s climax is a long time coming. The wait only makes it all the more satisfying when it finally kicks off though. As well as slowly building tension, we’ve been given time to get to know the huge cast of characters (or a good chunk of them at least).

And, as you’d imagine for a director well versed in depicting violence on screen, the lengthy sequence is thrillingly staged and visceral. The fallout following this, which will be well known to those who know the 47 Ronin story but I won’t spoil here, adds a haunting coda to the film too.

All-in-all, The Fall of Ako Castle is an engrossing, thoughtful and measured take on a well-told tale. That’s not to say it’s slow and tedious though. Fukasaku knows how to get your pulse going, when required. He just wants the audience to see the story from another point of view. He may not have been allowed to do this quite to the level he desired, but he ended up making a damn fine chanbara, nonetheless.

Film:

The Fall of Ako Castle is out on 4th December on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. It looks stunning, with crisp details, perfectly balanced contrast and lovely colours. The audio is decent too, though it shows some limitations in the source material with harsh ‘s’ sounds and a light hiss in quieter scenes.

LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES

– Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Chris Malbon [2000 copies]
– Presented in 1080p HD from a restoration of the original film elements by Toei
– Uncompressed original Japanese Mono audio
– Optional English subtitles
– New feature-length audio commentary by critic Tom Mes
– Tony Rayns on The Fall of Ako Castle – new interview with Asian film expert Tony Rayns
– King of my Castle – new video essay by author and critic Jasper Sharp
– Reversible sleeve
– A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay on the film by Jonathan Clements and a filmography of works by Kinji Fukasaku

Eureka’s fine collection of special features includes contributions by all of who I like to call the ‘holy trinity’ of Japanese film experts, who will be familiar to anyone who has worked their way through any number of Japanese film boutique Blu-ray releases over the years – Tom Mes, Tony Rayns and Jasper Sharp.

Mes’ commentary explores a range of topics throughout his epic track. He discusses some of the history behind the story and, generally speaking, provides a detailed, largely contextual analysis of the film. If you’ve got the patience, it’s a deeply rewarding listen.

Rayns also discusses the ‘true’ recorded story of the 47 Ronin story but in considerable detail. It shows how accurate Fukasaku’s version is. Rayns ends his piece by discussing some of the most famous versions of the story before talking about Fukasaku’s film.

Sharp provides a handy cover-all piece about the film and the legendary story it was based on. There is some new information here and he spends time analysing the visual approach, so this isn’t a mere retread of the information from the other extras, thankfully.

Jonathan Clements’ essay in the booklet provides another overview of the history behind the film as well as some analysis. Jasper Sharp also adds a handy Fukasaku filmography, complete with Japanese and alternative titles.

So, it’s an excellent package for an excellent film. As such, it comes very highly recommended.

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