Anomalous. That was the word that came somewhat to mind while watching this again (on DVD at last in this country, first time I’ve seen this since the 90s); there’s a number of things that are subtly “wrong” here. In real terms, of course, this was a mid-career film for Mizoguchi, whose career started in 1923 and ended with his death in 1956; now, though, I suppose it’s technically an “early” work, cos almost all his actual early work (the silent films made before 1935) has vanished, which makes assessing its proper place in the oeuvre impossible (especially since it doesn’t seem to have travelled West until the 70s) so it occupies a different position now to what it did in 1941. And also it obviously squares poorly (to some degree) with the films he made later that made his reputation as a director of films about women… even considering what Adrian Martin says in the DVD commentary about Mizoguchi introducing female characters into the story when he could just as easily have excluded them entirely.
But it’s anomalous, too, in terms of its own period. It took me quite a few years of film-watching to appreciate, with the knowledge gained thereby, how odd Citizen Kane looked in the context of 1941 Hollywood; now I don’t need long to realise how stylistically out there Mizoguchi was with his ronin in the context of 1941 cinema generally. Mizoguchi would later be feted in the West for his deployment of the long take (though I’m not sure if this particular example got André Bazin excited in the 50s cos he probably never got to see it), and as Martin says in his commentary the use of the long take here is indeed virtuosic; shots last for minutes on end, actors speak with their backs to the camera or from off-screen for sometimes lengthy stretches of those shots, and there’s only a handful of moments (all of them, I think, in part 2) which could be construed as close-ups. The gradual and carefully placed camera movements introduce an element of instability and prevent mere stasis, which might’ve resulted in the hands of a less certain director. If nothing else Mizoguchi knew precisely what he was doing.
And what he was doing was a 1960s/70s European art film avant la lettre. That’s the nearest equivalent I can think of to what Mizoguchi ended up with in this film; I haven’t seen enough Mizoguchi to know how well this matches his other output, but there’s something about the whole thing which just seems so… other for 1941. And I think it’s at least partly Mizoguchi’s determination to suck the action out of the film. Basically, this is a story about the consequences of doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time; Lord Asano attacks Lord Kira at the shogun’s castle, and is punished accordingly, and Asano’s now-masterless samurai want revenge on Kira. But their leader knows there’s a time and place for this revenge, and he’s determined to get it right. However, Mizoguchi is equally determined not to make a conventional samurai film, and so after three hours it comes as a bit of a shock to discover we’re not going to actually see the climactic revenge battle; in classical tragedy style, we only get a description of it. It’s a similar sort of reduction of overt drama and emotion to what you find in later Euro-arthouse cinema; whether by design or not, you can view it as kind of avant-garde.
Not, of course, that many appreciated this back in the day; part 1 (released the week before Pearl Harbour) was a notorious flop, with audiences feeling cheated by the lack of action in what should’ve been an action-packed story (and usually was in other versions) and critics frowning as only critics can on the overall detached style. (Nagisa Oshima apparently thought the emotional restraint of the film echoed a more serious case of repression at the heart of Japanese culture.) Part 2 seems to have only come about cos the WW2 military government liked the first part, which leads to one more area in which the film looks kind of anomalous now. I mean, maybe I’m being dense, but I’m not really sure about this being a propaganda film. Obviously it was intended thus, but did it actually work thus… even Mizoguchi apparently feared it could be read as an anti-violence film because he refused to depict it.
How it survived the censorious hands of the US occupying forces once the war was over is something I don’t know. I’m kind of glad it did, and now lives on into the digital age. Seeing it again, I must admit I’m still not sure how much I really like it as such; I think if I’d watched it without Adrian Martin’s commentary, which is excellent and extends remarkably well across nearly four hours of film, I might’ve found it a more trying experience. Still, I’m glad to have seen it again, though it’s really not a film to approach casually and in future I think I’ll try watching it over two nights rather than one…