Loyalty In Japanese Film: Hachi-ko and The 47 Samurai

Loyalty, I would hazard, is a highly regarded virtue in Japan. From the bushido practice of unwavering fealty to one’s lord, to the national adoration of one very devoted dog, loyalty is built into the cultural identity. As an ideal, it’s certainly admirable, and yet it also has a darker side, as was revealed in World War II with the government’s insistence on unquestioning loyalty to the emperor.

Hand-in-hand with loyalty is sacrifice, whether that be bodily or not. The former was exploited during the war, with young men expected to die en masse in the service of the emperor (and, by extension, the imperialistic goals of the government). The latter is just as important, for it forms the basis for the lord/vassal feudal system under which Japan was ruled for almost 300 years (and quite a bit longer before that under less strict guidelines). Certainly the adoption of Neo-Confuscianism as a justifying philosophy for the Tokugawa period’s strict social hierarchy contributed to the lasting power of loyalty, much as Calvinism still permeates American culture. It’s not surprising, then, that two of Japan’s most enduring, loyalty-based narratives should be made into film.

Hachiko Monogatari (The Story of Hachiko), a movie about a dog, was a huge hit in 1987. This should not surprise anyone who’s ever been to Japan and noticed the ubiquity of dogs as companions. Like Milo and Otis (1986) (yes, a Japanese film), Hachiko Monogatari is largely animal-centered. However, although kids may enjoy it, it is decidedly a film for adults.

*Take note that there are some minor spoilers below*

Hachiko, a pure bred Akita, is given as a present to Dr. Ueno (Nakadai Tatsuya), a college professor who is at first non-plussed about having another dog after the previous one passed away. As Hachiko grows and no one is found to adopt him, the professor takes to him like a child would, doting on him so much that his wife begins to get jealous. Akitas are known for their loyalty, and Hachi, as he comes to be known, is nothing if not loyal. He follows his master to Shibuya train station every morning and then trots back to meet him at the end of the day. If you’re at all familiar with the story, you know that the professor dies one day while at work. Hachi-ko then devotes his life to waiting outside the station for his master, who of course never returns.

You don’t have to be Japanese to be moved by Hachiko’s single-minded devotion, and thankfully the movie avoids being overly sentimental—the story is moving enough as it is, aided by the always stellar acting of Nakadai. The only real “big moment” is when Hachi and Ueno are reunited in the afterlife, fresh cherry blossoms falling as they embrace. Cheesy, yes, but I cry every time I see it.

Hachi became something of a celebrity while he was alive, with newspaper articles detailing his vigil. After he died, a statue was erected in front of the station where the dog waited every day, positioned so the faithful pup is forever watching the station entrance. The statue is a favorite Shibuya meeting spot, and Hachi is often decorated to suit the seasons. His legend remains alive.

Also alive is the legend of the loyal 47 ronin, a story so soaked in myth and yet so remarkably present in Japanese culture, it’s difficult to approach it in any length short of a book. But I will try:

The year was 1701. Asano Takuminokami, the feudal lord of Ako, was preparing to welcome the imperial envoys to the shogun’s castle for their annual visit. Asano was part of the official greeting committee, headed by Kira Kozukenosuke, a man of little virtue and, if the many plays and movies based on the following events are to be trusted, great vice, chief among them a desire to be bribed.

Asano was a virtuous man who refused to give in to Kira’s demands for payment, even when Kira withheld crucial greeting protocol information during the visit of the imperial envoys. Finally, unable to take it any longer, Asano drew his sword on Kira and cut his forehead and shoulder before being restrained. The punishment for drawing a sword in the shogun’s castle is death, and Asano was summarily ordered to immediately commit seppuku, or harakiri, ritual disembowelment.

At the time, there was a provision in the law that specified equal punishment for all parties in a quarrel. While Asano nobly went to his death, Kira received no punishment. Asano’s territories were to be confiscated by the shogun and his employees, his samurai cast into the street as ronin, masterless samurai.

It is common during circumstances such as these that the samurai of the fallen lord will choose to die defending their castle, thus joining their lord. Or they may commit seppuku as well. Asano’s samurai, headed by chief retainer Oishi Kuranosuke, chose instead to plead for an amendment of the order and the reinstatement of the Asano house, with Asano’s younger brother in the head position. When this failed, a second plan went into effect.

The retainers dispersed themselves around Edo, taking odd jobs and generally laying low. Oishi even disappeared into a brothel for two years to throw off the scent. Then, on December 14th, 1703, 47 of the former retainers made an attack on Kira’s compound, claiming his head and avenging their lord.

The 47 loyal retainers marched through the snow-covered streets of Edo to Sengakuji Temple where their lord was buried and presented him with Kira’s head. The 47 were ordered to commit seppuku and were buried with their master on the grounds of the temple.

Mizoguchi Kenji’s version of the story of the 47 ronin, Genroku Chushingura, was released in two parts, in 1941 and 1942. Historical accounts differ, but there is no doubt that Mizoguchi was asked by the Japanese government to make a wartime version of the famous story, ostensibly to foster feelings of loyalty and sacrifice in the people.

I don’t know what the government thought of the version Mizoguchi filmed, but, depending on how you look at, it can be seen as either a nationalistic parable or, more likely, a criticism of nationalistic behavior. Indeed, the version of the story used was written by a leftist, Mayama Seika, and the chief actors were members of a leftist theater troupe. It could be that their contribution to the film assuaged the government about their politics.

The history surrounding The 47 Ronin, as the film is known in the US, is undoubtedly fascinating, but how does it fare as a film? Let’s just say that if you’re not a Mizoguchi fan, you may want to get your Chushingura fix elsewhere. This is not a samurai film, as the genre is understood in the West, despite the presence of many a samurai. It may be jidai geki (a period film) but it is decidedly not a chanbara (sword-play) film. Mizoguchi famously omitted the big raid sequence, the pay off for most samurai movie fans. What you have instead is a slow, inexorable crawl towards group suicide.

This is not a criticism—it’s merely a description of the screenplay. The Chushingura story has been done more times than seems countable, on stage, on film, and on television. Each version chooses a slightly different focus, from Fukasaku Kenji’s revenge-heavy Swords of Vengeance (1978) to the comedic Salary Man Chushingura (1960), which places the action in the corporate world. Mizoguchi was not an action director. He preferred drama, and in The 47 Ronin, the drama takes center stage.

That being said, Mizoguchi also favored stories about women, and The 47 Ronin, as the title suggests, is about mostly men. It’s telling that the few scenes involving women are the most vibrant in the two films’ nearly 4 hours. Indeed, he gives the duty of recounting the raid, read from a letter, to Lady Asano, who imbues the telling with warmth, something lacking in all the stony-faced samurai.

Mizoguchi himself has remarked that he was practically forced to make the film, an indication of how he likely felt about it. It’s certainly not the deepest of his films nor the most emotionally resonant. But it’s still a Mizoguchi film, and that’s saying something.

Ultimately, if you like Mizoguchi, you’ll find something to like here. The camera itself is a wonder, moving gracefully amidst the serious rituals, a feminine fluidity to contrast the masculine rigidity. But if what you want is samurai action, look elsewhere.

It is worth noting that both of these films have spawned American remakes. Hachiko was remade with Richard Gere in the lead as Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009), while Keanu Reeves unfortunately will be starring in 47 Ronin (2012).