Ako Roshi (1961)
Directed by Sadatsugu Matsuda

Ako Roshi
Ako roshi
Starring Cheizo Kataoka (Oishi), Hashizo Okawa (Lord Asano), Ryunosuke Tsukigata (Lord Kira), Utaemon Ichikawa (Hyobu Chisaka), Kinnosuke Nakamura (Wakisaka), Chiyonosuke Azuma (Yasubei Horibe), Katsuo Nakamura (Denkichi), Kotaro Satomi (Tsunayoshi Uesugi), Hiroki Matsukata (Chikara Oishi), Ryutaro Otomo (Hotta/Toranosuke), Jushiro Konoe (Ikkaku Shimizu), Isao Yamagata (Gengoemon Kataoka), Kenji Susukida (Yahei Horibe), Denjiro Okochi (Sakon Tachibana), Eitaro Shindo (Denpachiro Okado), Haruo Tanaka (Police constable), Shunji Sakai (Matsuzo), Ryuji Kita (Gondayu Sone), Keiko Okawa (Lady Asano), Yumiko Hasegawa (Chiyo), Kogiku Hanayagi (Riku), Satomi Oka (Osen), Michiyo Kogure (Osune), Hiroko Sakuramachi (Osaki), Shinobu Chihara (Ukibashi Dayu)

Toei Company, 151 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Just two years after The 47 Masterless Samurai, Sadatsugu Matsuda made another big-budget version of the Chushingura story with almost exactly the same cast. In fact, in my early days as a jidai-geki collector, I thought I had made a mistake and bought the same movie twice. I used to wonder why Matsuda would have remade the movie in such a short span of time, but now I can see it wasn't that surprising. Japanese cinema has a tradition of retelling stories again and again, especially the 47 Ronin saga, and when Toei was choosing a project as their 10th anniversary spectacular, this surefire hit would have the obvious choice.

And in spite of the similar credits, on closer inspection Ako Roshi (also known as Warriors of Ako or Chronicle of Ako) is in fact quite different from its predecessor. First off, the cast gets mostly shuffled around to new roles. Of the supporting players, only Keiko Okawa and Kenji Susukida reprise their roles, being so perfect as Lady Asano and Yahei Horibe, respectively. And as was the case with Matsuda's series of Shimizu no Jirocho movies, the great Cheizo Kataoka remains fixed in the lead role as chief Ako avenger Oishi, while the rest of the cast rotates into a new constellation around him. It's interesting to note heroes and villains trading places. Ryunosuke Tsukigata, who played a bedridden Ako retainer in the 1959 version, here takes over as the evil lord Kira. Meanwhile, the former Kira Eitaro Shindo becomes one of Oishi's crucial allies.

Ako Roshi also has a considerably more complex and nuance script than The 47 Masterless Samurai. The former was a very traditional and thorough recounting of the legend, while this one follows more of an original structure. A novel opening sequence deals with official government placards being defaced, having the dictum "Bribes are forbidden" being crossed out. The vandal is a mystery ronin called Hayato Hotta (Ryutaro Otomo), who turns out to have close ties to Oishi. A constable played by the always appealing Haruo Tanaka pursues Hotta, which provides a fresh way to introduces the themes of corruption and hypocrisy before we get into Lord Asano's troubles. Much of the formative plot points of Kira's spite against Asano is covered in third-party dialogue, letting us cut right to the chase once Asano himself appears. The economical storytelling assumes a familiarity with the Chushingura saga, so Ako Roshi is not a good entry point for the uninitiated. But seasoned viewers will appreciate the fresh approach.

Deserving of special recognition is Hashizo Okawa for his spectacular performance as Asano. Okawa was mostly treated as a pretty-boy matinee idol in his career, being a specialist in lightweight chambara and seldom getting to opportunity to do real drama. But here, cast as the Hamlet of Japanese theatre, Okawa knock it right out of the park. His Asano is shrewd and worldly, understanding the ramification of his moral stance against Kira and proceeding with deliberate sureness. It's more compelling and heroic than the portrayal of Asano as a naive bumpkin begging for Kira's etiquette guidance, as Kinnosuke Nakamura played him in Matsuda's 1959 version.

Kataoka again excels as Oishi, giving a different interpretation of the chief Ako retainer. He turns in a more subtle performance here, keeping Oishi calm and restrained, almost dispassionate at times. I think I actually prefer his more fiery Oishi in The 47 Masterless Samurai, the one aspect in which the earlier version surpasses Ako Roshi. But Kataoka is always golden, and it's interesting to see him tackle this ideal role in a different way instead of repeating himself exactly.

Ako Roshi delves more deeply into the essence of the 47 Ronin's dilemma than some of the other versions, showing us it's not just a simple black-and-white revenge story. An illuminating conversation early in the film calls into question whether Asano's men are themselves responsible for their master's death by seppuku. Asano's associate Wakisaka advises Ako retainer Gengoemon Kataoka that it's the men's responsibility to accept the reality of bribery and pay off Kira in order to protect their lord's best interests. After the ceremonial visits are successfully completed, they should then come forward, admit to bribing Kira against their lord's wishes, and then kill themselves. Not choosing this path, Kataoka is left to agonize whether that sacrifice would have been the proper course of action, or would have unforgivably compromised his master's morality.

A parallel conversation comes at the climax of the film, when Kira's son Tsunayoshi gets word that the raid is in progress, and his servant Hyobu bars him from sending men to aid his father. Though it means violating the samurai code and defying his own master, Hyobu explains that he must serve the best interests of their clan. He is seeing beyond his own sense of right and wrong, or the passions of his master. Hyobu recognizes that justice is on the side of the Ako men, and history will view their clan with disgrace if they stand in the way of the vendetta. Hyobu's defiance ironically represents true samurai honor and sacrifice.

For its finely crafted nuances and magnificent cast, Ako Roshi stands as my personal favorite of the small fraction of Chushingura productions I have seen to date.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
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