The 47 Masterless Samurai (1959)
Directed by Sadatsugu Matsuda

The 47 Masterless Samurai
Chushingura: ouka no maki, kikka no maki
Starring Cheizo Kataoka (Oishi), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Lord Asano), Chiyonosuke Azuma (Yasoemon Okajima), Eitaro Shindo (Lord Kira), Hibari Misora (Taka), Hashizo Okawa (Kinemon), Utaemon Ichikawa (Wakisaka), Denjiro Okochi (Chuzaemon Yoshida), Isao Yamagata (Fuwa), Ryutaro Otomo (Yasubei Horibe), Kenji Susukida (Yahei Horibe), Ryunosuke Tsukigata (Heizaemon), Michiyo Kogure (Riku), Satomi Oka (Itoji), Hiroko Sakuramachi (Okaru), Keiko Okawa (Lady Asano), Yumiko Hasegawa (Lady Toda), Katsuo Nakamura (Tsunanori Uesugi), Shinobu Chihara (Ko), Kinya Kitaoji (Chikara Oishi), So Yamamura (Hyobu Chisaka), Shunji Sakai (Innkeeper), Sonosuke Sawamura, Kotaro Satomi (Shogun Tsunayoshi)

Toei Company, 183 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Sadatsugu Matsuda directed at least three versions of the 47 Ronin legend over the course of his career, and his 1959 production is variously known internationally as The 47 Masterless Samurai or The Great Avengers. It's a huge and lavish production featuring just about every actor from the Toei jidai-geki stable. It's a solid, if somewhat paint-by-numbers rendition of the old familiar tale that rises above mediocrity by virtue of a number of outstanding performances by the all-star cast.

The emotional anchor of the movie is the always masterful Cheizo Kataoka, who was born to play the solemn and determined Kuranosuke Oishi. As the leader of Lord Asano's loyal retainers, he gets across the full weight of the Ako clan's outrage in the incredible scenes where he learns the particulars of his master's death and forms his plans for vengeance. Almost equally stellar as Oishi's nemesis is Eitaro Shindo, one of the all-time greatest bad-guy actors in Japanese cinema, pouring on the loathsome villainy with aplomb. Notable in their supporting turns as members of the 47 ronin are Isao Yamagata as redeemed outcast Fuwa, and Ryutaro Otomo and Kenji Susukida perfectly cast as the father and son pair of Yahei and Yasubei Horibe.

But the actor who makes the biggest single impact on the course of the story, unlikely as it may seem, is superstar actress Hibari Misora. The mostly conservative script adheres closely to the conventional narrative with the one innovation of a role clearly written expressly to spotlight Hibari: she plays Taka, the daughter of a gravely ill Ako retainer. Taka's role becomes pivotal when Oishi recruits her to infiltrate Kira's castle to gather inside intelligence for planning their raid. So we end up with Hibari being onscreen in the thick of the climactic melee, traditionally a men-only affair.

It would be only a minor exaggeration to refer to this movie as Hibari Misora's Chushingura, but to her credit, she plays the part with such understated skill that the Taka character doesn't seem forced or obtrusive. Well, except for when Oishi calls on her to verify Kira's identity once he's captured -- come on, would the Ako retainers really not know with certainty what their hated foe's face looks like? At least Taka never has the opportunity to break into song, Hibari's star power doesn't overshadow the dramatic integrity of this most venerable of Japanese legends. In 1961 Matsuda made another, superior version of the story with mostly the same cast (minus Hibari), known as Ako Roshi.

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