A massive group of samurai participate in swordplay and melodrama.
Chushingura is director Hiroshi Inagaki's take on the tale of 47 loyal ronin who plot revenge on the man who orchestrated their master's death. The story of Chushingura is so popular in Japan, Inagaki's is roughly the fifth (and most famous) version released in the thirty years spanning 1932 to 1962 (including a 1939 version directed by Kajiro Yamamoto with the assistance of a youthful first assistant director named Akira Kurosawa).
Facts of the Case
At the center of Chushingura is the strict code of behavior characteristic of the Japanese Shogunate circa 1701. The young and morally upright Lord Asana refuses to bribe Kira, the Shogun's Grand Master of Ceremonies, whose passions revolve around sex and money. In order to punish Asana, Kira withholds vital information the young lord will need to fulfill his ceremonial responsibilities in the Shogun's castle. Goaded by Kira, Asana draws his sword inside the Shogun's castle, an act prohibited by law, and is forced to commit hara-kiri, leaving his family and samurai retainers dishonored. The retainers, led by Chamberlain Oishi, resolve to avenge their lord's death and restore honor to his house, biding their time until the opportunity presents itself. After two years of patience and secrecy, the 47 samurai who have remained faithful to their lord finally spring into action…
Let's deal first with Chushingura as a film, putting aside for the moment the question of Chushingura as a DVD. The logical question to ask is, how does it compare with Seven Samurai or other films by Akira Kurosawa, Japanese films with which a western audience is likely to be more familiar? Well, Chushingura is more purely Japanese. Honor, ceremonial propriety, and group identity are central in the world of Chushingura, a world in which the Shogunate is still strong and exerting enormous top-down social influence. In other words, Chushingura is very specifically culturally Japanese; one's knowledge of feudal Japan will affect one's understanding and enjoyment of the film. It's hard to imagine Kurosawa making a film that takes place in the same period as Chushingura, or making his own version of Chushingura. Kurosawa is more fascinated with periods of civil war, periods in which rigid social strictures have broken down and individuals are unmoored from their old roles, their old duties. The ronin of Seven Samurai are caught between two worlds; the film ends with their acknowledgement that they can't regain the world they've lost and they will never find a place in the new world with which they're confronted.
So, is Chushingura any good? Hell, yes. I don't want to give a wrong impression. One doesn't have to hold a post-graduate degree in Japanese history to enjoy the film. I certainly don't. On many levels, it's a fun adventure film. It tends to be a little more David Lean than Kurosawa in its fascination with long shots of beautiful scenery (there's certainly nothing wrong with that; Lawrence Of Arabia would probably be right after Seven Samurai on my list of favorite films). It's often (annoyingly) referred to as Japan's Gone with the Wind, and its pacing is very similar, slow but deliberate with much of the intrigue centered in interaction between characters rather than swordplay. Hiroshi Inagaki knows how to make a good film; among his body of work is the epic Samurai trilogy, based on the life of the master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi and starring the most famous actor in Japanese film history, and frequent Kurosawa collaborator, Toshiro Mifune. Trust me, when you watch this film, you're in good hands.
Now, let's talk about the film on DVD. Let me warn you: on the whole, this isn't going to be pretty…
Starting with what's good, though, let's consider the image quality. Inagaki shot Chushingura in color and this DVD, on the whole, delivers on his vision. The vivid colors of the characters' clothing, decorations in the castles, and Japanese countryside vistas are quite stunning. There are noticeable artifacts, though, in lots of the fine line detail throughout. The print itself isn't perfectly pristine—there are nicks and scratches here and there—but it's amazingly solid for a forty year old Japanese film. The print, as a matter of fact, is the best part of the transfer. The downside is that it's non-anamorphic. It's a real disappointment.
The original Japanese mono soundtrack is preserved, and it's perfectly fine with me that Image chose not to monkey around and create weak 5.1 branching. Dialogue is clear (I'm not sure it would make any difference if it wasn't since I don't speak Japanese) although hiss is prevalent. Overall, there's not much reason to complain about the soundtrack when there are other areas to focus on.
Let's start with the English subtitles. They're not accessible via remote control and, guess what, they're not accessible via a menu either. You don't need to access them at all because they're burned onto the image itself, or at least into the black bar beneath the widescreen image.
The disc is housed in a snapper case (bummer) that has an imposing photo of famed Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune wielding a sword. Unfortunately, Mifune has about 10 minutes of screen-time in a film that runs almost 3 1/2 hours. Putting him, and only him, on the cover is akin to using a headshot of Harrison Ford as the cover art for American Graffiti. Yeah, Mifune's in Chushingura, but to imply he's the star is deceptive.
More bad news: there's zip, zero, zilch in the way of extras; not even a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"But Chushingura is a great film," you might argue. Damn straight, and it deserves better than the shoddy treatment it's received from Image.
Make no mistake, Chushingura is a great movie. But this is not a great DVD: a non-anamorphic transfer with burned-in English subtitles, zero extras, and the sticks-in-my-craw deception of displaying Toshiro Mifune prominently on the cover despite the fact he has a minor role in the film. Add to all that a list price of $29.95 and it pushes the disc into the "can't recommend" column for everyone except the hardcore fan of Japanese film for whom NOT owning this title would be sacrilege.
Guilty, unfortunately. But released with time served.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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