The 47 Ronin
There are moments in Mizoguchi's surprisingly inert 4-hour presentation of this classic Japanese tale that remind you you're watching the work of a master. Not just a great director, but one who can produce moments you will always remember. When sdedalus wrote about Kurosawa's The Lower Depths he said...
"He pulls off a trick I've only ever seen done as successfully in films by Hou Hsiao-hsien, where a shot of a few figures talking will be held for quite awhile before you realize exactly how many characters there are on-screen: the shock of recognition after looking at a shot for three minutes and realizing there's actually a character sitting in the bottom left corner is fun..."
I recall a similar moment in DePalma's Dressed to Kill when we learn a little late that the killer has been on screen for a long time, right in the center of the frame, watching their next victim. Like sdedalus says, it's a great trick, almost impossible to pull off and emotionally very effective if used correctly.
In this film it occurs after the leader of 50 masterless samurai requests the others to follow his play no matter what. In the room they agree out of loyalty, but when the leader steps outside he finds one of his men committing suicide, believing the honorable move is also the wrong one. He cradles the dying man and reveals his true intent. Only after that body collapses dead did I notice another person in the background has also killed himself. In the frame, dying alone the entire time.
The samurai become Ronin after their Lord inexplicably tries to kill a court official named Kira. In his failure, he is forced to commit ritual suicide and his land is taken. Kira never has to answer to anything. I don't know why he would, but apparently it's a major insult that Kira never has to answer for why he was attacked. The Lord is simply painted as a crazy killer, though his entire staff knows him to be a wise and honorable guy. They all love him.
For all the discussion that goes on, the ronin don't know why their Lord committed this attack. They must decide whether to defend the honor of their former master without any explanation. Another masterful choice, this one of storytelling instead of camerawork. Part I ends on a key decision that sets the final decision into motion. Part II opens by rewinding the clock a bit and explaining how that decision ended up happening. (Another moment of brilliance.)
A thing that I loved, though admittedly it's a cheap shortcut is that everyone talks about Kira, who is very arrogant and pretty well despised. After the initial attack where he's mostly in shadow, we don't see him again for a really long time. Then when he reappears, this is the guy...
He looks like something out of a horror film. This is matched with a walk of arrogance that's exactly like The Leo strut
. He's on camera for less than a minute, but every frame just seeps of creepy, ugly evil. It's visual profiling, but very effective profiling, matching every bad vibe we hear about him.
As I said at the top, the film is very talky. Similar in many ways to Lincoln, it's about word not deed. I have to say I'm very disappointed that we never see the big attack scene. It's told to us via a message. Much more like a play than a kinetic samurai film, I understand Mizoguchi taking this approach and focusing on the codes of honor, but I think he could have thrown in some of the fighting without taking away from his main thrust. I plan on watching a couple of different versions of this tale, and while I like some of the core elements, this can't be the best adaptation. Even for a master like Mizoguchi, it's too static.