'The 47 Ronin in Debt' ('Kessan! Chushingura'): Film Review | Tokyo 2019

Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
More bemusing than funny.

In Yoshihiro Nakamura’s samurai satire on the high cost of waging warfare, the noble history of feudal Japan is retold through the lens of economic necessity.

Waging a war is damned expensive — that’s the one-gag, oft-repeated joke of The 47 Ronin in Debt (Kessan! Chushingura), which bowed as a special screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Though samurai comedies are rare, they are also hard to pull off, and the present Edo period film by Yoshihiro Nakamura is no exception. In many ways it recalls his money-making 2016 historical comedy The Magnificent Nine, in which 18th century townies scheme to get out of poverty by running a forbidden pawn business. Ronin is another overwrought effort, though it feels like there is a film struggling to get out, maybe one with more irony and sophistication.

Rather schizophrenically, the pic flip-flops between gorgeous period sets and highly individualized acting on one hand, and the protag’s comically mounting expenses that threaten his clan’s noble plans for revenge. While a roomful of sweating accountants bend over their abacuses, punching the beads like they were computer keys, underlying economic interests loom large, threatening to divide the ronins and distract them from their purpose. It is the moment when the concept of samurai honor gives way to comfort, luxuries and political corruption — a simple message that keeps getting lost in a long, repetitive film.

Writer-director Nakamura based his screenplay on Hirofumi Yamamoto’s 2012 scholarly study probing a famous incident in early 18th century feudal Japan. It’s the true story of the 47 ronin (wandering samurai without a master), which has already inspired many dozens of films. The most admired is Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 classic The 47 Ronin, which examined the samurai code of honor, sacrifice and revenge.

In Nakamura’s update, there is another very important thing at stake: money. Not only did the original dispute between the samurai’s Lord Asano of Ako and the corrupt Lord Kira of Edo revolve around bribery (Kira’s demanded it and Asano refused to pay), it turns out that without large reserves of cash, outfitting even a small army is impossible. As the ending makes clear, bribery has become a way of life.

Historically, after Asano wounds Kira, he is forced to commit hara kiri, leaving his samurai retainers masterless rogues and his Chief Retainer Oishi (played with notable presence by stage actor Shinichi Tsutsumi) in charge. They also forfeit their castle and private homes, which allows Edo to elbow in on the lucrative salt trade around Ako. What’s a samurai to do? Oishi’s immediate impulse is to lead the ronin in an attack on Kira’s superior forces, but his resolve is weakened by the opposition of the clan’s accountants — early white-collar workers in kimonos — who bring up the question of how the ronin will ever get their severance pay if they go against the Shogunate. This divides the assembly. Thus begins one of the film’s murkier passages, filled with faces and characters speaking out who are far too numerous to remember.

The upshot is a decision to delay the attack. But as the weeks turn into years, the clan’s funds dwindle. Every expense is humorously converted into its present-day equivalent in U.S. dollars onscreen. Travel expenses and accommodation for a group of ronin going from Ako to Edo and back could run up to $35,500, for instance, if enough people were involved. From an initial cache of $877,000, the 50-member clan (plus wives, children, concubines, accountants and servants) rips through the treasury in no time. Just the cost of buying weapons, armor and battle togs sends the budget spiraling out of control. One might be pardoned for wondering when the action will begin (only at the end of the film, and offscreen at that).    

Along from Tsutsumi, who is riveting whether he’s rolling on the floor with a clutch of geishas or loudly grunting his opinion of the moment to the assembly of would-be warriors, the cast is top-shelf. Even minor roles are convincing, but the large ensemble of male actors is really given little chance to stand out.

Composer Yu Takami’s brazen use of vintage dance music sounds lends DP Daisuke Soma's carefully framed and lit historical scenes a lot of wired energy of a most surreal sort. A special mention goes to the Ako "firefighter" uniforms.

Cast: Shinichi Tsutsumi, Takashi Okamura, Gaku Hamada, Yu Yokoyama, Satoshi Tsumabuki
Director-screenwriter: Yoshihiro Nakamura, from a book by Hirofumi Yamamoto
Producer: Fumitsugu Ikeda
Director of photography: Daisuke Soma
Music: Yu Takami
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Special Screening)
World sales: Freestone Productions Co.

125 minutes