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Last Ronin, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The 47th ronin... and, perhaps, the 48th."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The story of the 47 ronin is perhaps the most famous story in all of Japan, telling how in the early 1800s, after their lord was forced to commit seppuku, forty-seven of his samurai spent a year biding their time and planning before striking back at the lord who maneuvered their master into this position - and then committed ritual suicide themselves to atone for their crime. "The Last Ronin" is not that story itself, but rather an intriguing off-shoot, telling the tale of its survivors - including ones whom the bushido code suggests should not have lived.

Kichiemon Terasaka (Koichi Sato) numbers himself among them, for he is the 47th ronin. However, before the final attack, the leader of the band, Kuranosuke Oishi (Nizaemon Kataoka)gave him the responsibility of letting the story be known, and also delivering financial compensation to the widows. After over sixteen years of crisscrossing the country on foot, "Kichie" has finally completed his work, and comes to Kyoto for the seventeenth anniversary rites. Upon arriving, he notices the merchant Kariya (Kohi Yakusho), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his old friend Magozaemon "Magoza" Senoo, a fellow ronin who fled the night before the attack, an act of terrible cowardice. And Kariya is a man of secrets, chief among them Miss Kane (Nanami Sakuraba), a beautiful young woman who secretly lives in his house deep in the forest, receiving lessons in ettiquette and deportment from former courtesan Yugiri (Narumi Yasuda). And when Kane catches the eye of Shoichiro (Koji Yamanoto), the son of wealthy clothier Jiro Chayashiro (Yoshi Oida), it is Kariya whom the father asks to investigate the girl's background.

Though it is likely no surprise to those who have read the original novel by Shoichiro Ikemiya, the literal title character, Kichie, is not the primary focus of the film. It is not long before Magoza takes center stage. The early scenes set up a mystery or two, but while the final details which tie the story together are saved for the end, that Kariya and Magoza are the same person is never in doubt. Still, the grace with which director Shigemichi Sugita and writer Yozo Tanaka shift the focus from Kichi to Magoza is impressive; it might take until midway through the film for the viewer to realize that the film is much less about Terasaka's burden as a living witness than Senoo's responsibilities as a parent.

Indeed, though springing from a martial story of swordfighting and honor, The Last Ronin has more in common with Yoji Yamada's recent films which cast the samurai as the same sort of working man trying to make ends meet as its salaryman audience than a brawny epic like 13 Assassins. It's a conjoined pair of love stories, in a way, with Shoichiro's formal courtship of Kane (perhaps appearing relatively impersonal to a modern audience, but with a subtle sincerity to it) contrasted with the affection between Magoza and "Yu" that has built up over years. Sugita does a nice job of balancing the admiration for simpler times with recognizing the tragedies of those times.

Koji Yakusho and Koichi Sato are both quite good; though they don't share many scenes, there's a kinship between them, with each doing a nice job of putting their own spin on survivor's guilt. Yakusho's performance is something special, showing him about halfway between pretending to be Kariya and having become him. Narumi Yasuda is a wonderful complement to him as Yu, doing that obviously in love but unable to voice it for fear of doing something improper thing. And Nanami Sakuraba makes a nice Kane, capturing the mix of learned formality and real-world inexperience that her upbringing would lead to.

The Last Ronin can be a bit dry at times - at 133 minutes, it has room for some of the detail to be overdone and subplots to drag. It's a fine-looking movie, though, and the filmmakers add some nice touches: The puppet theater scenes are perhaps not necessary, but the craft and precision is wonderful, for example. And the brief flashback to the actual attack of the 47 ronin is not just a pretty nifty action scene, but is staged to look like it came from the samurai movies of a previous generation.

There are other movies that dramatize that story, and many are plenty impressive. This one is a side story, but it's a side story well told. The mystery is easily solved, but the joy comes from watching it untangle itself.

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originally posted: 08/30/11 13:41:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shigemichi Sugita

Written by
  Yozo Tanaka

  Koji Yakusho
  Koichi Sato
  Nanami Sakuraba
  Narumi Yasuda

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