Ako-Jo danzetsu (aka Swords of Vengeance) (1978) 

 

 

 

Director:     Kinjii Fukasaku.

Starring:     Sonny Chiba (Kazuemon Fuwa),  Kinnosuke Nakamura (Kuranosuke Ohishi),  Tsunehiko Watase (Heihachiro Kobayashi), Masaomi Kondo (Hashimoto),  Toshirô Mifune (Tsuchiya),  Kyôko Enami (Ukibashi), Yoshi Kato (Yahei Horibe).

ronin revolt against 5th Togukawa shogun (Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, reign 1680-1709) in honor of their master Lord Asano

 

Spoiler warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"270 years ago, the Genroku Period. Under the dictatorship of the 5th Shogun, Tsunayoshi, the Tokugawa Shogunate was at its pinnacle of unprecedented supremacy. The assets of 48 feudal lords had been seized, stripping 30,004 samurai of all of their possessions. No one sought revenge against the powerful shogunate."

March 14, 1702. In the presence of the Emperor’s envoy, Tsunayoshi was presented with the Imperial Sword.

Lord Asano speaks to a messenger. An older man by the name of Lord Kira calls the messenger named Kajikawa over to him and asks him what was he speaking to Asano about. Kajikaw says they were speaking of his meeting with the Emperor’s envoy on behalf of Lord Tsunayoshi’s mother. Lord Kira says it is he who will serve as intermediary of our lord’s mother. Kajikawa says that Lord Asano has already committed himself to serve as the intermediary. The older gent says that Asano doesn’t know enough and wonders how much he paid to acquire the role? Lord Kira knows that Asano can hear every word he says, but the fellow doesn’t care. He adds that Asano is unreliable.

Asano gets so angry that he attacks Kira with a long blade. Kajikawa struggles with Asano and tells him not to do such a thing in the castle. Lord Kira is escorted away while blood rolls down all over his face.

The news goes quickly around that someone has drawn a blade in the castle. The various and numerous samurai come running. The guards try to stop them. One samurai shouts that he is Yasube Horibe, disciple of Lord Asano. He wants to know if his master is safe?

Men comes with a big sign which says that Lord Takuminokami Asano has been charged with drawing his sword on Lord Kozukenosuke Kira. Neither of the two men have been critically injured and a short investigation to find out what happened is about to take place. Another disciple of Asano, Gengoemon Kataoka, tries to force his way through the guards.

Now a new intermediary has to be assigned. The shogun wants to make sure that Asano is severely punished! He also says that there is no need for a trial.

Asano Mansion in Edo (future Tokyo). Daigaku tells his sister-in-law that her husband drew his sword on Lord Kira inside the castle! She and the other women with her are shocked as hell. Asano’s wife tells Daigaku that he must return to Edo Castle and find out the latest news on Asano and Lord Kira. He is to send the news to Ako.

Two investigators speak with Asano, who explains to them that he received a cascade of insults from Lord Kira and he lost his patience with the man. He says his behavior is shameful beyond belief and he is completely remorseful. His only wish now is that he could have killed Lord Kira.

The investigators question Lord Kira, who tells them he hasn’t a clue why Asano was so angry with him. He says it is just pure madness. The investigators want to know why Kira did not draw his own sword in self-defense. Kira just says that he would never draw a sword in the castle.

A messenger from Lord Tsunayoshi brings the Lord’s sympathies to Lord Kira. And Lord Yanagisawa requests that the investigators resolve the matter quickly.

The investigators have given their report to Tsunayoshi. His decision is now read to the two men in the dispute. Kira is commended for not drawing his sword and is found free of guilt. Asano is sentenced to death by seppuku at the home of Ukyodayu Tamura. Asano's man Okado is disgusted at the verdict and tells the investigators they need to do a more thorough investigation. Asano, after all, is the master of an affluent rice producing clan. The death sentences seems rash. And Kira deserves some type of punishment for his part in the dispute.

The authorities are outraged at Okado. They tell him this came directly from the Shogun himself and the verdict is final. Okado says Asano is certainly not crazy and the verdict was completely one-sided. He further says that if they let Kira go scot-free, every cowardly samurai in the kingdom can walk with his head held high. Lord Yanagisawa says that Okado is young and doesn’t realize that the word of the Shogun is final. He takes the accepted attitude that the Shogun cannot make a mistake. He demands that the verdict be carried out.

Asano disciple Kataoka asks to see his master one last time and the wish is granted. Asano thanks him for coming, but he is not allowed time to explain what happened.. Kataoka cries. Asano goes to the place of execution.

Asano’s wife has her long pig tail cut off.

Ako Castle in Banshu. Nobody within the Asano clan knew of the recent events involving Lord Asano. 700 kilometers separate Edo and Ako constituting at least a four day trip.

An express palanquin has just arrived in Ako. Oishi’s son Chikara delivers the news to his father and mother. Dad, the Chief Councilor, goes to the castle.

Hashimoto is getting married today. Ihei is father to the bride. The mother of the bride is deceased. The ceremony leader hears the drum and tells everyone that is the castle drum. They must all go to the castle immediately.

A second palanquin brings the devastating news of the death of Lord Asano. A man named Hara is exhausted from the trip. He demands to see the Chief Councilor. With the head man, Hara tells him that Lord Asano was forced to kill himself and that all his land has been handed over to the Soghunate.  Furthermore, the Asano named is abolished. The Edo mansion had to be evacuated immediately. Furthermore, Asano’s wife had her hair cut and was forced to take the new name Yozein. In addition, Lord Kira escaped all punishment. Asano’s last words are read, as well as his last poem. The men in the room cry over what they feel is an injustice.

Councilor Oishi wants the samurai men in the room not to cash their paychecks. Banshu will need money. He tells the men that he will not make the decision yet as to barricade the castle.

The townspeople soon learn of what happened and the result is panic in the streets. People line up to cash their paychecks. A rumor spreads that the castle is being barricaded. Former Asano clansmen and their relatives storm the gate of Ako Castle asking for work. A big man Kazuemon Fuwa says he’s tired of all the fuss and is going to get something to eat.

Mondo Ueda, Chief Councilor of Geishu, sent by Lord Akinokami, arrives and demands to be let through the castle gate. Akinokami says that if there is any trouble from the disciples of Asano, the entire Asano family will be severely punished. And the Lord wants to know why the defiance in not giving the castle over to the Shogunate?  The Councilor says he believes the verdict was unfair. The castle defenders will go down with their castle. He says that’s the true samurai spirit.

Mondo Ueda is furious and says now they are the enemies of the people of Ako. They quickly walk out of the room. The Councilor’s advisers now say that he must give the castle over or else not only the Ako samurai but also thousands of townspeople will suffer the wrath of the Shogun. The advice they give the Councilor is to relinquish the castle. Oishi excuses himself.

Minister Ono decides to flee Ako. He is confronted by three men who are shocked that he is thinking of leaving. Ono says he won’t stay to have his family killed. The accountant in the group says that 300-ryo are missing and they demand that Ono open his safe. Ono makes a run for it and gets away. The newly-wed Hashimoto says that his father-in-law committed hara-kiri. He follow Lord Asano to the grave.

Mid-April. Armies led by Lords Awaji and Higonokami make their way to the border of Ako with orders that the Ako Castle must be relinquished by April 19. Ako men see Fuwa and they tell him that Ako Castle is about to fall. He should leave with them.

Oishi’s son Chikara comes to speak with Fuwa, the top swordsman of the clan. Chikara wants Fuwa to teach him how to commit hara-kira. Oishi’s wife asks Oishi if this is really the end? Oishi responds that he doesn’t know.

Emoshichi Yato arrives. He came on behalf of his sick father. A mass suicide has been called for. There are 56 men in all. Oishi says the remainder of the 300 have run away and others have disappeared.

The five men who recently returned from Edo object to having to kill themselves. They want vengeance on Kira. They swore to kill Kira and so they will not commit ritual suicide. Oishi agrees that to let Kira live is to dishonor their Lord. But the Shogunate also has to be punished. And they will be branded as outlaws for this. Their extended families will be arrested, followed by beheadings and hangings. Oishi now asks them for their support. The men give it willingly.

June 1703. Yanagisawa Mansion in Edo. Interview with Lord Yanagisawa. Oishi had requested that the younger brother of Takuminokami, Daigaku, assume the family name. Lord Tsunayoshi has made a special exception to allow for this inheritance. This is part of the reward for Oishi relinquishing the Ako Castle to the forces of the Shogun.

Oishi wants to know what is the decision about reopening the investigation regarding the actions of Lord Kira? They have retired Kira and that is enough punishment for him. Oishi says then he will have to decline Daigaku’s inheritance of the family name. Oishi is told to get out!

There are rumors that the Asano clan are looking to avenge their Lord. The fear is that Oishi is willing to give his life in this pursuit in order to prove his people’s case. And he doesn’t just want Kira. He wants to prove the Shogun was wrong. Lord Yanagisawa fears Oishi’s next step will be the assassination of Kira. So he his assistant Zusho send Kira to Yonezawa, his home castle. Uesugi will see to it that it is done.

Uesugi Mansion in Edo. Zusho tells Uesugi the plan, but he also tell him that Lord Yanagisawa is trying to used the Uesugi Clan as a scapegoat. The Uesugi clan will be criticized for harboring a guilty man. And if Kira is killed in Yonezawa, the Uesugi name could also be abolished. Zusho says the only real solution is to assassinate Oishi. Zusho says he will see to it.

The Asano men learn that Kira will be transported to Yonezawa and, without consulting Oishi, they want to use the opportunity to kill Kira. The men position themselves to watch for Lord Kira. He comes out and gets into a palanquin. The plan is for Hashimoto to shoot Kira with a rifle.

The others of the Asano men learn that Hashimoto and Horibe along with some others have gone to the temple to kill Kira.

The palanquin procession approaches the temple and the assassins get into their positions. Some of Kira’s men in disguise go ahead of the procession. They see a rifle sticking out of an upstairs window in a house. They go in and a fight to the death takes place. Hashimoto is badly wounded. Some of the assassins arrive to kill the Kira men. But then Oishi’s men arrive to stop the assassination attempt. With all these delays the men miss their opportunity to shoot Kira.

The would-be assassins are now balled out by Oishi’s loyal men. Hashimoto may survive, but he will be forever crippled. Yasubei Horibe is considered the leader of the assassination attempt. Yoshida arrives. He brings news that Oishi will leave Edo early tomorrow morning. Oishi has said that because of the fool-hardy attempt to kill Kira, he no longer wants the help of a bunch of lunatics. This type of assassination would not constitute a real retaliation against the Shogun.

Horibe wants to see Oishi, so Yoshida takes the man to see the Chief Councilor, who is praying before the tomb of Lord Asano. This sign of devotion softens Horibe’ heart towaeds Oishi.

At the behest of Zusho and Uesugi, a group of career criminals are sent to see the pharmacist Iheiji. He will tell them who the target is.

Yamashina, Kyoto. The career criminals approach the target house, but run right into Fuwa. They decide to go around him. Their target is Oishi. Oishi tells his wife Riku that she should take the children and go to her father’s house, but their son Chikara must stay. Riku doesn’t want to divorce, but she does take the children and leaves the next morning.

A drunken Oishi is entertained by a bevy of geisha women. This disturbs his men. Chikara tells the men that his father’s debauchery is just part of his plan. He begs the men to believe in his father. Chikara is so upset that he runs out onto the street and starts a fight. He and a buddy have to run for it when the authorities show up.

Chikara goes home. He asks his father if he intends to avenge the death of Lord Asano or not? Dad only says that the bath is ready. At this time the four criminals bust into the house to kill Oishi. Father and son fight for their lives. Luckily for them, Fuwa arrives and kills all of the criminals.

September 1703. Kira and his son Tsunanori learn that Oishi is in Kyoto. They want him assassinated.

The grandmother of Hashimoto’s child has died. She was sad that she would not live to see the day of vengeance. The men around Hashimoto express their impatience in waiting for Oishi to do something. Oishi paints a mural with a picture of Lord Kira’s head on a pedestal. This frightens those around him, but he denies that he is seeking vengeance.

On the 18th, Lord Kato summones Lord Daigaku to tell him he cannot inherit the Ako Asano clan name. His assets are then seized and he is banished to his parental home in Hiroshima. Lord Kira is very happy as he tells his son about it. The son tells his father to tell the men at Kamigata to gather together at Juami in Maruyama.

At night a swordsman, Kira’s attendant Heihachiro Kobayashi, assassinates Oishi, but it turns out that the dead man is not Oishi after all.

A man tells the crippled Hashimoto that the Chief Counselor has arrived in Edo and he wants everyone to assemble tonight. Hashimoto isn’t interested. His wife is out selling her body in Fukagawa. This upsets the messenger and he scolds Hashimoto for turning his wife into a prostitute. Hashimoto forces the messenger out of his house.

Kobayashi arrives to speak to Hashimoto. He places 50-ryo on a table for information about Oishi. Hashimoto tries to kill the man, but Kobayashi just disarms him. Hashimoto tells him that he would kill himself rather than betray his clan. Kobayashi leaves saying that he now knows that Oishi is in Edo.

Oishi arrives. He apologizes for taking so long, but now the time has come to avenge Lord Asano.

Hashimoto goes to the red light district to see his wife. He wants them to get out of Edo. Hashimoto shows her he has money (from Kobayashi). His wife wants to know where the money came from. He tells her he did get it from one of Kira’s men, but he did not betray his comrades. Hatsu begs her husband to return the money, but he refuses.

Oishi explains that Kira is at the Uesugi mansion in Sakurada. He tells the men that they will need an accurate floor plan and knowledge of Kira’s movements.

Kira Mansion. Four of Oishi’s men push a carriage holding wood right past the guards of the mansion. Two men go around the corner, tilt the carriage in an upright position and climb onto the top of a wall. This gives them access to the mansion.

Some of the women site the assassins. They have to run for it. They jump over a wall, but find themselves confronted by Lord Yanagisawa. The two assassins bow to the Lord. The Lord tells his attendant to tell Kira’s men that the two assassins were found and killed without interrogation.

Lord Kira will hold a tea ceremony on the 14th. Otaka is excited to hear this from the tea master himself. As he walks out to tell others a man thinks he recognizes Otaka. He was one of his old haiku cronies. He is now an Ako samurai and he heard that he is in Edo now. It looks like Otaka has been exposed.

A friend of Hashimoto arrives to tell Hatsu that they cannot find her husband and the raid has been set for tomorrow night. Hatsu says she will take him to her husband. They find him with a geisha. They throw the geisha out and tell Hashimoto that the raid is tomorrow night. Hashimoto says it’s too late for that. Hatsu gets angry at him. His friend says he will take Hashimoto with him. His wife deserves better. So Hashimoto accuses his friend of having taken a liking to his wife. Hashimoto tries to kill his friend with his sword, but Hatsu stabs her husband with a short sword to the belly. Hashimoto slashes his wife with his sword, killing her. He tells his friend to tell Oishi that none of this would have happened if he had just acted six months ago. Hashimoto then commits hara-kiri. His friend cries for Hashimoto.

December 14, 1703. The tea master gives Kira a tea cup as a gift, without saying anything about Otaka. Kira is very pleased with the gift.

Oishi and his men prepare for the assault on the Kira Mansion. Hashimoto’s friend arrives to tell that Hashimoto has killed his wife and himself. One of the men takes Hashimoto’s daughter saying his wife will raise her.

The men walk through the snow to their destination. Half the squad goes around the mansion. Two men use ladders to climb over the walls and open the main door. The men rush into the mansion. The men at the rear gate start banging on it with huge wooden hammers to break the gates open. The gate comes open and the men pour in. They immediately clash with other samurai.

Lord Yanagisawa comes out to investigate the noise and tells his men to be calm. It is the raid of the Ako warriors.

The Ako warriors are killing all the Kira men because there is no surrender. The warriors now surround a very good Kira swordsman. Some of his men arrive to save him. Fuwa now confronts the Kira swordsman. This warrior fights hard, but skewers himself on a sword stuck fast into the side of a wooden beam. Fuwa finishes him off. Now the Ako warriors go to find Kira himself, but the man is not in his bed.

Uesugi Mansion, Edo. Kira’s son jumps on his horse ready to ride to save his father. Zusho stops him. The son tries to kill Zusho, but Zusho overcomes him.

The Ako warriors finally find Kira in his hiding place. They bring him outside. Oishi makes sure it’s Kira and then he stabs him with a short sword.

A message arrives for Asano’s widow. Oishi and 46 men raided the Kira mansion just before dawn and avenged Lord Asano. They then went to Sengaku Temple and presented Lord Kira’s head to the master’s altar. She is greatly relieved because she had truly resented Oishi and his men for not avenging their master.

Lord Yanagisawa is informed that they have sent Oishi and his men to the Hosakawa, Mori, Matsudaira and Mizuno mansions. They quietly await a verdict. Many important people, including Lord Tsunayoshi, have expressed that mercy be granted in this case. But Lord Yanagisawa says they cannot tolerate such insolent behavior in opposing the Shogun.

February 4, 1704. Takuminokami Asano, Hosakawa Mansion. The Aka warriors learn that the Shogun has sentenced them to death by hara-kiri. But the Kira family name is to be abolished and all its assets seized. It is also reported that the Shogun says he now regrets the original one-sided verdict in the case of Asano versus Kira. Oishi says: "Our happiness is beyond words."

Mori Mansion. Oishi with a part of the larger group of surviving Ako warriors prepare himself for death. The same is true at the other mansions as well.

Alone Oishi awaits his death. Someone shouts to him: "Your men have all finished!" It’s his turn. Oishi walks past the caskets of his warriors. Before he commits hara-kiri he is informed that all 46 of his men died honorably.

He then stabs himself and slides the blade from left to right.

"Today the 47 warriors rest peacefully at Sengaku Temple in Takanawa. Though the people and their hearts may have changed over the years, to this day, countless visitors congregate there to pay their respects."

 

Good movie, but it sure took a long time for the accomplishment of vengeance.  I kept wanting these assassins to just do it and get it over with already.  The characters were portrayed as being frustrated by the long wait.  And this Japanese concentration on the overwhelming importance of honor gets to be sort of a drag.  And I always remember what Japan did in World War II and know that this attitude was partly responsible for the Japanese atrocities against so many people.   And what was their honor devoted to?  Actually, their clan.  Talk about your tribalism!  It's too narrow of a world for my tastes.  I had ambivalent feelings about the vengeance.  Sure, Kira was a very rude jerk.  But should he be killed for that?  And should so many innocent members of the Kira clan be killed for the vengeance of another clan?  I know those were different days, but the beliefs and attitudes of those days did impact Japan. 

These Samurai films are quite a bit like American westerns.  You ckind of have to check your present day morals at the door so to speak to swallow what is happening on the screen.  Many American westerns are vigilante films.  Hey, doesn't anybody try to go through legal channels?  Of course, the premise in many samurai and western films is that there is no just legal system to appeal to and there is much truth in that, but not always. 

Another bothersome thing.  The Asano clan kill all those men of the Kira clan to show up the Shogun as being one-sided?  That just doesn't set very well with me. 

Sonny Chiba has a role in the film, but it is certainly not a big role. 

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 

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