Epic drama of slow revenge is rousing and moving.
The Lord of Asano clan (Yuzo Kayama) is an idealistic young man who believes that bestowing his superiors with luxurious gifts is akin to bribing them for their knowledge that they should be passing down anyway. When he is given the responsibility to receive the envoys from the Imperial Court by the Shogunate, he finds himself in a perfect situation to test his beliefs.
The protocol official, Kira (Chusha Ichikawa) is an experienced but highly corrupt man who makes it clear that his help will be scarce if he Asano does not impress him with gifts, like the other lords.
Both the people refuse to give in and for about an hour the film is about them trying to outdo each other. This might test the patience for those who are aware of the legend as none of the other versions go into such detail as this. Master filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi's 1941 version of the same tale gets to the action much sooner (though, it is to be noted that it still runs for above 4 hours).
For the unaware and the interested, this detailing is fascinating and offers more chances to observe the Japanese courtly norms. It also makes us more familiar with the characters while luxuriating in the film's rich production design.
The tug of war between Asano and Kira ends with the former punished with the sentence of committing seppuku. His clan of samurais is left with three options - to become ronins (disgraced samurais without a master) and lead a life of ignominy, find a new lord and avenge their master's death.
They, of course, go for the last option.
But there is a catch.
Chamberlain Oishi (Koshiro Matsumoto in a performance of gravity) of the clan has a maddeningly methodical plan to exact this revenge. In the coming years, yes years, he build his reputation as an indulgent coward, in order to keep Kira convinced that the clan has chosen to let go of the matter. This invites scorn from the samurai's relatives and people in general, but the those who have not already retired from being a samurai, follow Oishi with utmost loyalty. Some samurais find love but everything, as expected, gets sucked into the vortex of violence towards the end. The women characters do not have a lot of screentime but there are some interesting characters and they get good scenes. Chief among them are Lord Asano's wife who is trying to grapple with a new lifestyle and Kira's long-suffering bitter wife who is sick of his debauchery.
There is a nobleness to Oishi's sacrifice as he, and the others, are spurned by the relatives and society. As the film goes closer to its battle, the winter arrives, the snow falls and somehow, the film becomes stiller. The ronins realise that this is an almost suicide mission and their end is inevitable but revenge is the honor here and, honor is a pilgrimage.
Toshiro Mifune fans might be disappointed due to the length of his role, but his presence is undeniable and he leaves a mark as samurai for hire Genba Tawanaboshi. His role is interspersed intelligently in the film and his friendship with Horibe Yasubei (Tatsuya Mihashi) gains poignancy.
Hiroshi Inagaki's film is patient, stirring and rousing that is also moving at times. There is no doubt that this is a prestigious project and the period re-creation and performances are all top-notch.
If you're looking for an even longer version of the story, it's available (as of now) on youtube. Just type Chishunguru and you'll find it easily. This is a TV production that runs for over 40 hours! If you want to go for a shorter route - though, I don't recommend- go for the 2013 Hollywood version starring Keanu Reeves (!).
The DVD for this film is available at Amazon.com