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Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan (Fukasaku Kinji 1994)


Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan
[Crest of Betrayal]

Genre: Historical Supernatural Samurai [Tokugawa/Edo Era: 1603-1867 AD]

review in one breath

Directed and written by Fukasaku Kinji, Chushingura Gaiden: Yotsuya Kaidan presents a classic tale combining two very well known Japanese traditions. The Chushingura Gaiden is an actual historical episode, better known in the West as the story of the 47 Ronin, and constitutes one of Japan's most beloved samurai stories. It involves an extensive plot of revenge enacted by 47 samurai whose leader was ordered to commit seppuku after attempting to kill an oppressive rival. (A "ronin" is a leaderless samurai.)

An excellent subtitled version of the historical story is available on VHS and DVD, entitled Chushingura (Image Entertainment, 1963). On December 14, 1702, under the leadership of Ôishi Kuranosuke, the 47 ronin stormed the rival's palace and exacted their long awaited revenge, knowing full well that each would be punished by death for their participation.

In 1748 Takeda Izumo II wrote "Chushingura," originally a bunraku play, to memorialize the heroic samurai. In 1825 Tsuruya Nanboku wrote Yotsuya Kaidan, a (fictitious) ghost story taking place within the context of the Chushingura Gaiden. The name "Yotsuya" refers to the geographic region in which the story (and Chushingura) take place, and the term "kaidan" (or "kwaidan") is the genre name for classic Japanese ghost tales. Thus the title simply means "The Ghost Tale (taking place) at Yostuya".

The main character of the Yotsuya Kaidan is Iuemon, swordsman and biwa player extraordinaire, whose lack of moral aptitude keeps him from becoming the 48th Ronin. The major characters in his story are the characters of the Chushingura, and Iuemon fades in and out of the historical narrative as he is drawn toward and then distracted from the 47 ronins' ongoing plot for revenge. Iuemon's own story climaxes with the storming of the rival's palace and the accomplished revenge. Thus the great portion of the Yotsuya Kaidan consists of a retelling of the Chushingura, introducing its fictional characters and ghosts between the major scenes of the historical narrative.

Given the date of its writing (in 1825) it will be no wonder that this story has appeared in numerous forms on stage and in theaters. Fukasaku's version (1994) is perhaps the most contemporary and utilizes a "star studded" cast of popular film stars and talent. Although he does not stray far from the traditional formula, Fukasaku does deliver in the area of quality acting and uses some special effects which undoubtedly outdo the earlier versions. In essence, this is a conservative retelling of a traditional story using a large cast of contemporary Japan's favorite talent.

The story itself is rather complicated and assumes you are very familiar with the Chushingura narrative. Thus the events leading up to the plotting of the ronin, as well as the major characters' relation to one another, are not explicitly spelled out. These stories are so traditional, however, that everyone in the Japanese audience will not require this background. In addition, as with most samurai movies, the language used in dialogue is archaic and very hard to follow (for a foreigner). Thus due to the many assumptions made regarding the audience's background knowledge and the difficult language used, this movie took alot of brainpower to watch and process. (To my knowledge there is not subtitled version of this movie available yet.)

The "kaidan" portion of the story involves Oiwa, the pregnant wife of Iuemon, who is cruelly poisoned by the (Chushingura's) rival clan. The poison causes a miscarriage and terrible disfigurement of Oiwa, and leads eventually to her a violent death. Juxtaposed to her innocent death is the moral quandary of Iuemon, who from a very early age pursued the end despite the means. As Iuemon fluctuates between choices of good and evil, the opportunity to do good passes him by and he is in the end relegated to an unfortunate death. Both the ghost of Oiwa and Iuemon intervene periodically at crucial moments within the Chushingura narrative which, according to the Yotsuya Kaidan, brings about the success of the 47 ronin.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
If you are not familiar with the Chushingura or the Yotsyua Kaidan, you should really try to see this, or a version thereof. Fukasaku's film will also introduce you to a lot of contemporary Japanese star power. Major sword battles, often resulting in flying limbs (sans owner). A couple seppuku scenes. One gruesome poisining resulting in an alien-like disfigurement. Two beheadings, one of which causes quite a stir among the maids of honor at the wedding reception. Just enough breasts to keep the otherwise dozing male attentive. This would rate higher in the "strange" category for those who are unfamiliar with these traditional tales. Otherwise, it is a pretty conservative retelling of a well known tale.

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