I first saw this very great film in the fall of 1965 when I started as a freshman at Cal. It had been playing at a local art house for ELEVEN months and, it being Berkeley, people were picketing to demand a new movie! I was lucky to have the chance to see it three times before it finally closed six weeks later. At the time, I thought it was UNDOUBTEDLY the greatest movie ever made, or ever likely to be.
Six years later, I had a second encounter with "Chushingura" when it was revived at an art house in San Francisco. A group of friends and I attended a showing where we were the only Caucasians in attendance -- EVERYONE ELSE in this 200+ seat cinema appeared to be Japanese or Japanese-American. It being the early '70s in the Bay Area, we had fully prepared ourselves to maximally enjoy the sheer visual beauties of this film. Sure enough, it was gorgeous, and we all muttered "wow" either singly and in chorus as we wallowed in the cinematographic feast.
But the stunning thing, to me, was the response of the Japanese/ Japanese-American audience. Utterly quiet throughout the movie, when the lights went up most of them had tears streaming down their cheeks --no vocal crying, mind you, just the overwhelming emotional response to a peak, deeply moving experience. I really envied them their cultural insight into the profoundly Japanese issues this masterpiece explores, something which as much as I admire "Chushingura" I must admit that as a Westerner I don't entirely comprehend.
The story is described elsewhere, so I'll focus first on the unparalleled BEAUTY of this movie. It is simply the most gorgeous thing ever committed to celluloid. Every single frame is like a perfect work of art, a series of superbly imagined Japanese images of nature and humanity which engulf your senses in endless, exquisite splendor. Next, "Chushingura" has stupendous pacing -- the shifts between tension and serenity, between lyricism and violence are expertly crafted, and the movie flows, sometimes majestically and sometimes in terrifying haste, to its incredibly exciting climax and compellingly tragic denouement. Finally, "Chushingura" explores deep themes of honor and loyalty, retribution and atonement, that may not resonate fully with a Western audience, but which nevertheless inspire awe and an enhanced curiosity about the culture and people that produced and are molded by them -- the culture that created this unforgettable cinematic masterwork.
Is "Chushingura" UNDOUBTEDLY the great movie ever? Maybe not, but it's definitely in the running with only a handful of other films for that exalted position.
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