At the turn of the 18th Century in feudal Japan, a wealthy lord was forced to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) after inflicting a minor wound on a shogunate official. His 47 samurai, now masterless ronin, spent the next two years plotting revenge in his honor, even though this would inevitably result in their deaths as well.
The true story of the 47 Ronin is one of the most well-known in all of Japanese culture; it’s so popular, in fact, that a word exists for its re-telling in fiction: Chūshingura. In Japan, the story has been filmed numerous times, most memorably as the 2-part The 47 Ronin (1941), shot during WWII by Kenji Mizoguchi, and Hiroshi Inagaki’s 1962 Chushingura.
2013’s 47 Ronin, a $200 million blockbuster from Universal (who have already taken a writedown on the project) and first-time feature director Carl Rinsch (who got the gig after his memorable short The Gift), is the first Hollywood-produced English-language version of the story. If you’ve seen the trailers, you may be wondering where Keanu Reeves and CGI monsters fit into the story of the 47 Ronin.
Short answer: they don’t.
Reeves stars here as Kai, a half-British, half-Japanese outcast who is taken in by lord Asano (Min Tanaka) after being mysteriously discovered in the woods as a child. Through the years, Kai struggles to earn the respect of Asano’s loyal samurai, and falls in love with his daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki), all elements created wholly for this version of the story.
Also new in this version are the fantasy elements, brought to life via subpar CGI effects that belie the film’s immense budget. Kai helps the samurai to bring down a wild, unidentified beast in an early scene to ensure safe passage for the shogun; later, he fights an ogre in a cage; then he brings the samurai to a lair of lizard-like ghost men for assistance in exacting their revenge. All of these are entirely irrelevant to the film’s main storyline.
At best, Kai’s storyline and the fantasy diversions represent silly distractions that take us out of what should be the main focus. But at worst, they represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the sacred nature of the source material in Japanese culture: the Hollywoodizing of this story could be viewed as a great offense.
But not so fast: the real story of the 47 Ronin is in here somewhere, and it’s brought to vivid life by director Rinsch, who, despite the tacky fantasy stuff, takes this material very seriously. Whenever the focus turns to the actual story of Asano and the ronin who set out to take revenge on Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) in his honor, the film threatens to become interesting.
The real star of 47 Ronin is Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi, the samurai leader who (in this version) is imprisoned for a year before being released, gathering his fellow ronin, and plotting revenge. Oishi (who starred in The Wolverine earlier this year) is terrific here, and brief scenes he shares with his wife and son (Jin Akanishi) carry far more dramatic weight than any of the nonsense with Reeves’ character.
Of course, the film is entirely in English, spoken by a Japanese cast, many of whom learned their lines phonetically. The result is an almost surreal experience in which Reeves actually gives the least wooden line readings. The dialogue almost seems to be unfolding in slow motion; combined with the slow nature of the plot, 47 Ronin becomes incredibly dull. It’s a tough sit that feels much longer than its 2-hour runtime.
There was clearly a vision here, but the resulting film is a complete mess that has very likely been compromised along the way. While I can’t imagine the concept – a Lord of the Rings-style Hollywood update of Japanese history – working in any capacity, and the film frequently bored me to tears, there is some good here: this isn’t the total disaster the film’s failure with both critics and audiences would lead you to expect.