At this point Japan has filmed most of its national legends not just once but several times, and with each retelling comes the perspective of its director and the era of its making. Few tales are as widely known or retold as Chushingura, known in the West as the “Tale of the 47 Ronin,” and there have been no less than five different movie versions that I know of in Japan. One of the most popular was Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 version, which featured Toshiro Mifune in a key supporting role; another was Kon Ichikawa’s 1994 version, with samurai-movie regulars Renji Ishibashi and Ken Takakura. Each of them put their own distinctive feel on the material. Swords of Vengeance, from 1978, was directed by none other than Kinji Fukasaku, who has given us everything from Battle Royale to Satomi Hakkenden and everything in between.
Calling Fukasaku anything less than idiosyncratic would be … well, a dishonor. He’s put his signature style and approach on every movie he’s directed, and Vengeance is no different. It has his restless, striking camera style (which he developed in collaboration with his longtime DP, Hanjiro Nakazawa); it has brutal violence and swordplay galore; and it also uses the story as a way to work in many of Fukasaku’s conceits about social injustice and oppression. On the surface of it alone, the movie is of course enormously entertaining; the pace never flags once for the entire 2-hour-40-minute running time. Then you dig a little deeper, and see how Fukasaku may have understood this story’s real relevance and meaning far better than some of his more widely-lauded compatriots.
The story is by now almost shopworn in its familiarity. In 1701, Naganori Asano was a retainer of a minor country fiefdom. He was also the target of much abuse by his superior, Lord Kira. One day, after a few too many snide comments, Asano drew his sword and attacked the other man in the middle of a ceremony. For this Asano was ordered to kill himself. After his death, forty-six of his retainers—led by Kuranosuke Oishi, one of Asano’s most devoted subjects—banded together in secret, broke into Kira’s house, and murdered him. They were sentenced to commit suicide en masse, but later enshrined as national heroes.
Fukasaku never met a legend he didn’t want to subvert in some way, or bend to his vision. The amazing thing about Vengeance is that despite a good deal of interference from the studio and the star—Kinnosuke Yorozuya, the haughty, glowering lead of Shogun’s Samurai and Samurai Banners—he still managed to include a good deal of the social commentary and angry allegory that he became best known for. Fukasaku’s original idea was to depict the forty-seven ronin as terrorists revolting against a corrupt government; barring that, he wanted to combine the basics of the story with elements of another, supernatural staple legend (the “Yotsuya” ghost story, which he wound up doing in a later film anyway). The studio eventually won, but with the help of screenwriter Kōji Takada (who had also penned Fukasaku’s Virus and literally dozens of yakuza/crime/gangster pictures), he was able to sneak in the elements he wanted.
The first and most striking thing is the casting of Yorozuya, normally typecast as arrogant villains or cruel men of power. This is not someone who really seems to lend himself to the role of a hero. Does Fukasaku see him as one? It’s hard to look at him and automatically see a hero; he’s too convinced of his uprightness. Even more ironic, the film has supporting (and walk-on) roles by two other samurai movie regulars who most decidedly can be seen as heroes: Sonny Chiba, as a ronin spy, and Toshiro Mifune himself in a very small role as an unexpected co-conspirator. The contrast is striking. We can see them as the heroes; Yorozuya just looks like a self-important thug. What’s even weirder is that this oddball casting actually enhances the movie’s message: Are these men really heroes?
Then Fukasaku begins to focus on specific details—not just that these men are heroes by default, but that they do things worthy of the term. Oishi may be convinced that revenge is the right path for him, but he’s also not foolish. When his parent clan’s holdings are abolished, he tells all of his subordinates to cash in their paychecks and make sure all of their vassals get paid, because they’ll be the first to panic. He makes it as clear as he can that anyone who chooses to follow him will most likely have their own families killed in retaliation. This is a one-way road, and anyone who comes along needs to know what they’re getting themselves and everyone around them into. It’s the sort of detail that Fukasaku would focus on; every one of his films, even the “minor” ones, has ruminations about man in society and each’s responsibility towards the other.
It’s details like this that make Fukasaku’s version interesting all the way through, and much more than just another run-through of material made sacred by time. Such attention to interpretive detail was Fukasaku’s mainstay. One of the things that stood out in his version of the supernatural pulp-thriller Makai Tenshō was how he took the time to show how all of these paranormal goings-on were tearing apart the country on a human level—something the classy-but-limited 2003 remake didn’t bother with for a single scene.
The real place where Fukasaku tips his hand, though, is in the two last sequences of the film: the assault on Kira’s household, and the aftermath. In the earlier 1962 version, the whole thing was shot so formally and elegantly it hardly seemed to be all that violent. In this version, the scene is one of the most protracted and brutal action scenes Fukasaku ever filmed, including the violence of Battle Royale. As violent as Oishi’s men are, though, they have limits: they spare the women of the household, and they only kill those who attack them first. These are the sorts of embellishments that the directors of the various filmed versions of the story would also employ, as a way to make the tale more palatable to modern audiences, but Fukasaku was also using them to comment directly on the story itself.
The second sequence, where Oishi’s men are compelled to commit suicide, is so somber and formal it hardly seems to be the work of the same director. Rather than show the deaths of the men in detail, Fukasaku uses an immensely powerful device. He has the condemned sitting in a room, dressed in funereal kimonos of white, being led out one by one to die. We never see them being killed. Finally Oishi emerges into the death room, and Fukasaku gives us a fitting final image: the coffins of Oishi’s comrades, lined up like dominoes. If there is heroism in this story, Fukasaku seems to be saying, it isn’t here at the end. It was in everything you saw before.